Tag: verificationism

A critique of the government’s claimant satisfaction survey

“An official survey shows that 76% of people in the [PIP] system responded to say that they were satisfied. That itself is not a happy position, but it shows that her representation of people’s average experience as wholly negative on the basis of a Twitter appeal does not reflect the results of a scientific survey.”  Stephen Kerr, (Conservative and Unionist MP for Stirling), Personal Independence Payments debate, Hansard, Volume 635, Column 342WH, 31 January 2018 

“The latest official research shows that 76% of PIP claimants and 83% of ESA claimants are satisfied with their overall experience.” Spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions.

The Department for Work and Pensions Claimant Service and Experience Survey (CSES) is described as “an ongoing cross-sectional study with quarterly bursts of interviewing. The survey is designed to monitor customers’ satisfaction with the service offered by DWP and enable customer views to be fed into operational and policy development.”

The survey measures levels of satisfaction in a defined group of ‘customers’ who have had contact with the Department for Work and Pensions within a three-month period prior to the survey.

One problem with the aim of the survey is that satisfaction is an elusive concept – a subjective experience that is not easily definable, accessible or open to precise quantitative measurement. 

Furthermore, statistics that are not fully or adequately discussed in the survey report – these were to be found tucked away in the Excel data tables which were referenced at the end of the report – and certainly not cited by Government ministers, are those particularly concerning problems and difficulties with the Department for Work and Pensions that arose for some claimants. 

It’s worrying that 51 per cent of all respondents across all types of benefits who experienced difficulties or problems in their dealings with the Department for Work and Pensions did not see them resolved. A further 4 per cent saw only a partial resolution, and 3 per cent didn’t know if there had been any resolution.

In the job seeker’s allowance (JSA) category, some 53 per cent had unresolved problems with the Department and only 39 per cent had seen their problems resolved. In the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) group, 50 per cent had unresolved problems with the Department, and in the Personal Independent Payment (PIP) group, 57 per cent of claimants had ongoing problems with the Department, while only 33 per cent have seen their problems resolved. 


–  means the sample size is less than 40. 

A brief philosophical analysis

The survey powerfully reminded me of Jeremy Bentham’s Hedonistic Calculus, which was an algorithm designed to measure pleasure and pain, as Bentham believed the moral rightness or wrongness of an action to be a function of the amount of pleasure or pain that it produced.

Bentham discussed at length some of the ways that moral investigations are a ‘science’. There is an inherent contradiction in Bentham’s work between his positivism, which is founded on the principle of verification – this says that a sentence is strictly meaningful only if it expresses something that can be confirmed or disconfirmed by empirical observation (establishing facts, which are descriptive) – and his utilitarianism, which concerns normative ethics (values, which are prescriptive). Bentham conflates the fact-value distinction when it suits his purpose, as do the current Government.

The recent rise in ‘happiness’, ‘wellbeing’ and ‘satisfaction’ surveys are linked with Bentham’s utilitarian ideas and a Conservative endorsement of entrenched social practices as a consequence of this broadly functionalist approach. It’s not only a reflection of the government’s simplistic, reductionist view of citizens, it’s also a reflection of the reduced functioning and increasing rational incoherence of a neoliberal state. 

As we have witnessed over recent years, utilitarian ideologues in power tend to impose his/her vision of the ‘greatest happiness for the greatest number,’ which may entail some negative consequences for minorities and socially marginalised groups. For example, the design of a disciplinarian, coercive and punitive welfare system to make ‘the taxpayer’ or ‘hard-working families’ happy (both groups being perceived as the majority). The happiness of those people who don’t currently conform to a politically defined norm doesn’t seem matter to the Government. Of course people claiming welfare support pay tax, and more often than not, paid tax before needing support.

Nonetheless, those in circumstances of poverty are regarded as acceptable collateral damage in the war for the totalising neoliberal terms and conditions of the ‘greater good’ of society, sacrificed for the greatest happiness of others. As a consequence, we live in a country where tax avoidance is considered more acceptable behaviour than being late for a job centre appointment. Tax avoidance and offshore banking is considered more ‘sustainable’ than welfare support for disabled people. 

This utilitarian problem, arising because of a belief that a state’s imposed paradigm of  competitive socioeconomic organisation is the way to bring about the greatest happiness of the greatest number, also causes the greatest misery for some social groups. This is a problem that raises issues with profound implications for democracy, socioeconomic inclusion, citizenship and human rights. 

My point is that the very nature and subject choice of the research is a reflection of a distinctive political ideology, which is problematic, especially when the survey is passed off as ‘objective’ and value-neutral’.

There are certain underpinning and recognisable assumptions drawn from the doctrine of utilitarianism, which became a positivist pseudoscience in the late nineteenth century. The idea that human behaviour should be mathematised in order to turn the study of humans into a science proper strips humans down to the simplest, most basic motivational structures, in an attempt to reduce human behaviours to a formula.

To be predictable in this way, behaviour must also be assumed to be determined.

Yet we have a raft of behavioural economists complaining of everyone elses’ ‘cognitive bias’, who have decided to go about helping the population to make decisions in their own and society’s best interests. These best interests are defined by behavioural economists. The theory that people make faulty decisions somehow exempts the theorists from their own theory, of course. However, if decisions and behaviours are determined, so are the theories about decisions and behaviours. Behavioural science itself isn’t value-neutral, being founded on a collection of ideas called libertarian paternalism, which is itself a political doctrine. 

The Government have embraced these ideas, which are based on controversial assumptions. Even the best philosophers and neuroscience specialists have never resolved the debate around determinism and free will. There is no consensus on the matter. 

The current government formulates many policies with ‘behavioural science’ theory and experimental methodology behind them, which speaks in a distinct language of individual and social group ‘incentives’, ‘optimising decision-making’ and all for the greater ‘good of society’ (where poor citizens tend to get the cheap policy package of thrifty incentives, which entail austerity measures and having their income reduced, whereas wealthy citizens get the deluxe package, with generous financial rewards and free gifts.) 

There are problems with trying to objectively measure a subjectively experienced phenomena. There are major contradictions in the ideas that underpin the motive to do so. There is also a problem with using satisfaction surveys as a measure of the success or efficacy of government policies and practices. 

A little about the company commissioned to undertake the survey

The research was commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions and conducted by Kantar Public UK –  who undertake marketing research, social surveys, and also specialise in consultancy, public opinion data, policy and also economy polling, with, it seems, multi-tasking fingers in several other lucrative pies

Kantar Public “Works with clients in government, the public sector, global institutions, NGOs and commercial businesses to advise in the delivery of public policy, public services and public communications.” 

Kantar Public will deliver global best practice through local, expert teams; will synthesise innovations in marketing science, data analytics with the best of classic social research approaches; and will build on a long history of methodological innovation to deliver public value. It includes consulting, research and analytical capabilities.” (A touch of PR and technocracy).

Eric Salama, Kantar CEO, commented on the launch of this branch of Kantar Public in 2016: “We are proud of the work that we do in this sector, which is growing fast. Its increasing importance in stimulating behavioural change in many aspects of societies requires the kind of expert resource and investment that Kantar Public will provide.”

The world seems to be filling up with self-appointed, utilitarian choice architects. Who needs to live in a democracy when we have so many people who say they’re not only  looking out for our ‘best interests’, but defining them, and also, helping us all to make “optimum choices” (whatever they may be). All of these flourishing technocratic businesses are of course operating without a shred of cognitive bias or self-consciousness of their own. Apparently, the whopping profit motive isn’t a bias at all. It’s only everyone else that is cognitively flawed. 

Based on those assumptions, what could possibly go wrong right?

I digress. 

The nitty-gritty

Ok, so having set the table, I’m going to nibble at the served dish. Kantar’s survey – commissioned by the Government – cited in the opening quotes – by the Government.  The quotes have been cited in the media, in a Commons debate and even presented as evidence in a Commons Committee inquiry into disability support (Personal Independence Payments and Employment and Support Allowance).

It seems that no-one has examined the validity and reliability of the survey cited, it has simply been taken at face value. It’s assumed that the methodology, interpretation and underlying motives are neutral, value-free and ‘objective’. In fact the survey has been described as ‘scientific’ by at least one Conservative MP.

There are a couple of problems, however, with that. My first point is a general one about quantitative surveys, especially those using closed questions. This survey was conducted mostly by telephone and most questions in the used questionnaire were closed

Some basic problems with using closed questions in a survey:

  • It imposes a limited framework of responses on respondents
  • The survey may not have the exact answer the respondent wants to give
  • The questions lead and limit the scope of responses 
  • Respondents may select answers which are simply the most similar to their “true” response – the one they want to give but can’t because it isn’t in the response options – even though it is different
  • The options presented may confuse the respondent
  • Respondents with no opinion may answer anyway
  • Does not provide us with information about whether or not the respondent actually understood the question being asked, or if the survey response options provided include an accurate capture and reflection of the respondents’ views.

Another problem which is not restricted to the use of surveys in research is the Hawthorne effect. The respondents in this survey had active, open benefit claims or had registered a claim. This may have had some effect on their responses, since they may have felt scrutinised by the Department for Work and Pensions. Social relationships between the observer and the observed ought to be assessed when performing any type of social analysis and especially when there may be a perceived imbalanced power relationship between an organisation and the respondents in any research that they conduct or commission.

Given the punitive nature of welfare policies, it is very difficult to determine the extent to which fear of reprisal may have influenced peoples’ responses, regardless of how many reassurances participants were given regarding anonymity in advance.

The respondents in a survey may not be aware that their responses are to some extent influenced because of their relationship with the researcher (or those commissioning the research); they may subconsciously change their behaviour to fit the expected results of the survey, partly because of the context in which the research is being conducted.

The Hawthorne Effect is a well-documented phenomenon that affects many areas of research and experiment in social sciences. It is the process where human subjects taking part in research change or modify their behaviour, simply because they are being studied. This is one of the hardest inbuilt biases to eliminate or factor into research design. This was a survey conducted over the telephone, which again introduces the risk of an element of ‘observer bias.’

Methodological issues

On a personal level, I don’t believe declared objectivity in research means that positivism and quantitative research methodology has an exclusive stranglehold on ‘truth’. I don’t believe there is a universally objective, external vantage point that we can reach from within the confines of our own human subjectivity, nor can we escape an intersubjectively experienced social, cultural, political and economic context.

There is debate around verificationism, not least because the verification principle itself is unverifiable. The positivist approach more generally treats human subjects as objects of interest and research – much like phenomena studied in the natural sciences. As such, it has an inbuilt tendency to dehumanise the people being researched. Much human meaning and experience gets lost in the translation of responses into quantified data – the chief goal of statistical analysis is to identify trends

An example of the employment of ‘objective’ and ‘value-neutral’ methods resulting in dehumanisation is some of the inappropriate questions asked during assessment for disability benefits. The Work and Pensions Select Committee received nearly 4,000 submissions – the most received by a select committee inquiry – after calling for evidence on the assessments for personal independence payment (PIP) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). 

The recent committee report highlighted people with Down’s syndrome being asked when they ‘caught’ it. Assessors have asked insulting and irrelevant questions, such as when someone with a progressive condition will recover, and what level of education they have.

This said, my own degree and Master’s, undertaken in the 1990s, and my profession up until 2010, when I became too ill to work, were actually used as an indication that I have “no cognitive problems” in 2017, after some 7 years of being unable to work because of the symptoms of a progressive illness that is known to cause cognitive problems. My driving licence in 2003 was also used as evidence of my cognitive functioning.

Yet I explained that have been unable to drive since 2004 because of my sensitivity to flickering (lamp posts, trees, telegraph poles have a strobe light effect on me as the car moves) which triggers vertigo, nausea, severe coordination difficulties, scintillating scotoma and subsequent loss of vision, slurred and incoherent speech, severe drowsiness, muscle rigidity and uncontrollable jerking in my legs. I usually get an incapacitating headache, too. I’m sensitive to flashing or flickering lights, certain patterns such as ripples on a pond, some black and white stripe patterns and even walking past railings on an overcast day completely incapacitates me. 

The PIP assessment framework is claimed to be ‘independent, unbiased’ and objective.’ Central to the process is the use of ‘descriptors’, which are a limited set of criteria used to ‘measure’ the impact of the day-to-day level of disability that a person experiences. Assessors use objective methods such as “examination techniques, collecting robust evidence, selecting the correct descriptor as to the claimant’s level of ability in each of the 10 activities of daily living and two mobility activities, and report writing.”  They speak the language of positivism with fluency.

However, it has been long recognised by social researchers and sociologists that positivism does not accommodate human complexity, vulnerability and context very well. In an assessment situation, the assessor is a stranger to the person undergoing the assessment. How appropriate is it that a stranger assessing ‘functional capacity’ asks disabled people why they have not killed themselves? Alice Kirby is one of many people this happened to.

She says: “In this setting it’s not safe to ask questions like these because assessors have neither the time or skills to support us, and there’s no consideration of the impact it could have on our mental health.

The questions were also completely unnecessary, they were barely mentioned in my report and had no impact on my award.”

So, not only an extremely insensitive and potentially risk-laden question but an apparently pointless one. 

It may be argued that some universal ‘truths’ such as the importance of ‘impartiality’, or ‘objectivity’ are little more than misleading myths which allow practitioners and researchers alike to claim, and convince themselves, that they behave in a manner that is morally robust and ethically defensible.

A brief discussion of the methodological debate  

Quiz 1 Quiz 2 Quiz 3 All Quizzes

Social phenomena cannot always be studied in the same way as natural phenomena, because human beings are subjective, intentional and have a degree of free will. One problem with quantitative research is that it tends to impose theoretical frameworks on those being studied, and it limits responses from those participating in the study. Quantitative surveys tend not to capture or generate understanding about the lived, meaningful experiences of real people in context.

There are also distinctions to be made between facts, values and meanings. Qualitative researchers are concerned with generating explanations and extending understanding  rather than simply describing and measuring social phenomena and attempting to establish basic cause and effect relationships.

Qualitative research tends to be exploratory, potentially illuminating underlying intentions, responses, beliefs, reasons, opinions, and motivations to human behaviours. This type of analysis often provides insights into social problems, helps to develop ideas and establish explanations, and may also be used to formulate hypotheses for further quantitative research.

The dichotomy between quantitative and qualitative methodological approaches, theoretical structuralism (macro-level perspectives) and interpretivism (micro-level perspectives) in sociology, for example, is not nearly so clear as it once was, however, with many social researchers recognising the value of both means of data and evidence collection and employing methodological triangulation, reflecting a commitment to methodological and epistemological pluralism.

Qualitative methods of research tend to be much more inclusive, detailed and expansive than quantitative analysis, lending participants a dialogic, democratic and first hand voice regarding their own experiences.

The current government has tended to dismiss qualitative evidence from first hand witnesses of the negative impacts of their policies – presented cases studies, individual accounts and ethnographies – as ‘anecdotal.’ This presents a problem in that it stifles legitimate feedback. An emphasis on positivism reflects a very authoritarian approach to social administration and it needs to be challenged.

A qualitative approach to research is open and democratic. It potentially provides insight, depth and richly detailed accounts. The evidence collected is much more coherent and comprehensive, because it explores beneath surface appearances, and reaches above causal relationships, delving much deeper than the simplistic analysis of ranks, categories and counts. It provides a reliable and rather more authentic record of experiences, attitudes, feelings and behaviours, it prompts an openness and is expansive, whereas quantitative methods tend to limit and are somewhat reductive.

Qualitative research methods encourage people to expand on their responses and may then open up new issues and topic areas not initially considered by researchers.

Government ministers like to hear facts, figures and statistics all the time. What we need to bring to the equation is a real, live human perspective. We need to let ministers know how the policies they are implementing directly impact on their own constituents and social groups more widely.

Another advantage of qualitative methods is that they are prefigurative and bypass problems regarding potential power imbalances between the researcher and the subjects of research, by permitting participation (as opposed to respondents being acted upon) and creating space for genuine dialogue and reasoned discussions to take place. Research regarding political issues and policy impacts must surely engage citizens on a democratic, equal basis and permit participation in decision-making, to ensure an appropriate balance of power between citizens and the state.

Quantitative research draws on surveys and experimental research designs which limit the interaction between the investigator and those being investigated. Systematic sampling techniques are used, in order to control the risk of bias. However not everyone agrees that this method is an adequate safeguard against bias.

Kantar say in their published survey report: “As the Personal Independence Payment has become more established and its customer base increased, there has been an increase in overall satisfaction from 68 per cent in 2014/15 to 76 per cent in 2015/16. This increase is driven by an increase in the proportion of customers reporting that they were ‘very satisfied’ which rose from 25 per cent in 2014/15 to 35 per cent in 2015/16.

Sampling practices

The report states clearly: “The proportion of Personal Independence Payment customers who were ‘very dissatisfied’ fell from 19 per cent to 12 per cent over the same period. 

Then comes the killer: “This is likely to be partly explained by the inclusion in the 2014/15 sample of PIP customers who had a new claim disallowed who have not been sampled for the study since 2015/16. This brings PIP sampling into line with sampling practises for other benefits in the survey.

In other words, those people with the greatest reason to be very dissatisfied with their contact with the Department for Work and Pensions  – those who haven’t been awarded PIP, for example – are not included in the survey. 

This introduces a problem in the survey called sampling bias. Sampling bias undermines the external validity of a survey (the capacity for its results to be accurately generalised to the entire population, in this case, of those claiming PIP). Given that people who are not awarded PIP make up a significant proportion of the PIP customer population who have registered for a claim, this will skew the survey result, slanting it towards positive responses.

Award rates for PIP (under normal rules, excluding withdrawn claims) for new claims are 46 per cent. However, they are at 73 per cent for Disability Living Allowance (DLA) reassessment claims. This covers PIP awards made between April 2013 and October 2016. Nearly all special rules (for those people who are terminally ill) claimants are found eligible for PIP. 

If an entire segment of the PIP claimant population are excluded from the sample, then there are no adjustments that can produce estimates that are representative of the entire population of PIP claimants.

The same is true of the other groups of claimants. If those who have had a new claim disallowed (and again, bearing in mind that only 46 per cent of those new claims for PIP resulted in an award), then that excludes a considerable proportion of claimants registering across all types of benefits who were likely to have registered a lower level of satisfaction with the Department because their claim was disallowed. This means the survey cannot be used to accurately track the overall performance of the Department or monitor in terms of whether it is fulfilling its customer charter commitments.

The report clearly states: “There was a revision to sample eligibility criteria in 2014/15. Prior to this date the survey included customers who had contacted DWP within the past 6 months. From 2014/15 onwards this was shortened to a 3 month window. This may also have impacted on trend data.” 

We have no way of knowing why those peoples’ claim was disallowed. We have no way of knowing if this is due to error or poor administrative procedures within the Department. If the purpose of a survey like this is to produce a valid account of levels of ‘customer satisfaction’ with the Department, then it must include a representative sample of all of those ‘customers’, and include those whose experiences have been negative.

Otherwise the survey is reduced to little more than a PR exercise for the Department. 

The sampling procedure is therefore a way of only permitting an unrepresentative  sample of people to participate in a survey, who are likeliest to produce the most positive responses, because their experiences have been of a largely positive outcome within the survey time frame. If those who have been sanctioned are also excluded across the sample, then this will also hide the experiences and comments of those most adversely affected by the Department’s policies and administration procedures, again these are claimants who are the likeliest to register their dissatisfaction in the survey. 

Measurement error occurs when a survey respondent’s answer to a survey question is inaccurate, imprecise, or cannot be compared in any useful way to other respondents’ answers. This type of error results from poor question wording and questionnaire construction. Closed and directed questions may also contribute to measurement error, along with faulty assumptions and imperfect scales. The kind of questions asked may also have limited the scope of the research.

For example, there’s a fundamental difference in asking questions like “Was the advisor polite on the telephone?” and “Did the decision-maker make the correct decision about your claim?”. The former generates responses that are relatively simplistic and superficial, the latter is rather more informative and tells us much more about how well the DWP fulfils one of its key functions, rather than demonstrating only how politely staff go about discussing claim details with claimants. 

This survey is not going to produce a valid range of accounts or permit a reliable generalisation regarding the wider populations’ experiences with the Department for Work and Pensions. Nor can it provide a template for a genuine learning opportunity and commitment to improvement for the Department.

With regard to the department’s Customer Charter, this survey does not include valid feedback and information regarding this section in particular:

Getting it right

We will:
• Provide you with the correct decision, information or payment
• Explain things clearly if the outcome is not what you’d hoped for
• Say sorry and put it right if we make a mistake 
• Use your feedback to improve how we do things

One other issue with the sampling is that the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA) groups were overrepresented in the cohort. 

Kantar do say: “When reading the report, bear in mind the fact that customers’ satisfaction levels are likely to be impacted by the nature of the benefit they are claiming. As such, it is more informative to look at trends over time for each benefit rather than making in-year comparisons between benefits.” 

The sample was intentionally designed to overrepresent these groups in order to allow “robust quarterly analysis of these benefits”, according to the report. However, because a proportion of the cohort – those having their benefit disallowed – were excluded in the latest survey and not the previous one, so cross comparison and establishing trends over time is problematic. 

To reiterate, the report also says: “When reading the report, bear in mind the fact that customers’ satisfaction levels are likely to be impacted by the nature of the benefit they are claiming. As such, it is more informative to look at trends over time for each benefit rather than making in-year comparisons between benefits.” 

With regard to my previous point: “Please also note that there was a methodological change to the way that Attendance Allowance, Disability Living Allowance and Personal Independence Payment customers were sampled in 2015/16 which means that for these benefits results for 2015/16 are not directly comparable with previous years.” 

And: “As well as collecting satisfaction at an overall level, the survey also collects data on customers’ satisfaction with specific transactions such as ‘making a claim’, ‘reporting  a change in circumstances’ and ‘appealing a decision’ (along with a number of other transactions) covering the remaining aspects of the DWP Customer Charter.These are not covered in this report, but the data are presented in the accompanying data tabulations.” 

The survey also covered only those who had been in touch with DWP over a three month period shortly prior to the start of fieldwork. As such it is a survey of contacting customers rather than all benefits customers.

Again it is problematic to make inferences and generalisations about the levels of satisfaction among the wider population of claimants, based on a sample selected by using such a narrow range of characteristics.

The report also says: “Parts of the interview focus on a specific transaction which respondents had engaged in (for example making a claim or reporting a change in circumstances). In cases where a respondent had been involved in more than one transaction, the questionnaire prioritised less common or more complex transactions. As such, transaction-specific measures are not representative of ALL transactions conducted by DWP”.

And regarding subgroups: “When looking at data for specific benefits, the base sizes for benefits such as Employment and Support Allowance and Jobseeker’s Allowance (circa 5,500) are much larger than those for benefits such as Carer’s Allowance and Attendance Allowance (circa 450). As such, the margins of error for Employment and Support Allowance and Jobseeker’s Allowance are smaller than those of other benefits and it is therefore possible to identify relatively small changes as being statistically significant.”

Results from surveys are estimates and there is a margin of error associated with each figure quoted in this report. The smaller the sample size, the greater the uncertainty.

In fairness, the report does state: “In the interest of avoiding misinterpretation, data with a base size of less than 100 are omitted from the charts in this report.” 

On non-sampling error, the report says: “Surveys depend on the responses given by participants. Some participants may answer questions inaccurately and some groups of respondents may be more likely to refuse to take part altogether. This can introduce biases and errors. Nonsampling error is minimised by the application of rigorous questionnaire design, the use of skilled and experienced interviewers who work under close supervision  and rigorous quality assurance of the data.

Differing response rates amongst key sub-groups are addressed through weighting. Nevertheless, it is not possible to eliminate non-sampling error altogether and its impact cannot be reliably quantified.”

As I have pointed out, sampling error in a statistical analysis may also arise from the unrepresentativeness of the sample taken. 

The survey response rates were not discussed either. In the methodological report, it says: “In 2015/16 DWP set targets each quarter for the required number of interviews  for each benefit group to either produce a representative proportion of the benefit group in the eventual survey or a higher number of interviews for sub-group analysis where required. It is therefore not strictly appropriate to report response rates as fieldwork for a benefit group ceased if a target was reached.” 

The Government says: “This research monitors claimants’ satisfaction with DWP services and ensures their views are considered in operational and policy planning.” 

Again, it doesn’t include those claimants whose benefit support has been disallowed. There is considerable controversy around disability benefit award decisions (and sanctioning) in particular, yet the survey does not address this important issue, since those experiencing negative outcomes are excluded from the survey sample. We know that there is a problem with the PIP and ESA benefits award decision-making processes, since a significant proportion of those people who go on to appeal DWP decisions are subsequently awarded their benefit.

The DWP, however, don’t seem to have any interest in genuine feedback from this group that may contribute to an improvement in both performance and decision-making processes, leading to improved outcomes for disabled people.

Last year, judges ruled 14,077 people should be given PIP against the government’s decision not to between April and June – 65 per cent of all cases.  The figure is higher still when it comes to ESA (68 per cent). Some 85 per cent of all benefit appeals were accounted for by PIP and ESA claimants.

The system, also criticised by the United Nations because it “systematically violates the rights of disabled persons”, seems to have been deliberately set up in a way that tends towards disallowing support awards. The survey excluded the voices of those people affected by this government’s absolute callousness or simple bureaucratic incompetence. The net effect, consequent distress and hardship caused to sick and disabled people is the same regardless of which it is.

Given that only 18 per cent of PIP decisions to disallow a claim are reversed  at mandatory reconsideration, I’m inclined to think that this isn’t just a case of bureaucratic incompetence, since the opportunity for the DWP to rectify mistakes doesn’t result in subsequent correct decisions, in the majority of cases, for those refused an award. 

Without an urgent overhaul of the assessment process by the Government, the benefit system will continue to work against disabled people, instead of for them.

The Government claim: “The objectives of this research are to:

  • capture the views and experiences of DWP’s service from claimants, or their representatives, who used their services recently
  • identify differences in the views and experiences of people claiming different benefits
  • use claimants’ views of the service to measure the department’s performance against its customer charter

The commissioned survey does not genuinely meet those objectives.


DWP splash out more than £100m trying to deny disabled people vital benefits

Inquiry into disability benefits ‘deluged’ by tales of despair

The importance of citizens’ qualitative accounts in democratic inclusion and political participation

Thousands of disability assessments deemed ‘unacceptable’ under the government’s own quality control scheme

Government guidelines for PIP assessment: a political redefinition of the word ‘objective’

PIP and ESA Assessments Inquiry – Work and Pensions Committee

There is an alternative reality being presented by the other side. The use of figures diminishes disabled peoples’ experiences.”

I don’t make any money from my work. I am disabled because of illness and have a very limited income. But you can help by making a donation to help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.


The ‘cognitive bias’ of behavioural economics and neuropolitics


Richard Thaler was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his contributions to developing the field of behavioural economics last month. Thaler, and legal theorist, Cass Sunstein, who co-authored Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness (2008), have popularised the ideas of libertarian paternalism, which is basically founded on the idea that it is both possible and legitimate for governments, as well as public and private institutions, to affect and change the behaviours of citizens while also [controversially] “respecting freedom of choice.”

Regular readers will know that I don’t like behavioural economics and its insidious and stealthy creep into many areas of public policy and political rhetoric. The lack of critical debate about the application of libertarian paternalism (which is itself a political doctrine) via policies which are designed as systems of political “incentives” at the very least ought to have generated a sense of disquiet and unease from the public and academics alike. 

Using “psychological insights” in public policy – which amount to little more than cheap political techniques of persuasion – no matter how well-meaning the claimed intention is – amounts to a frank state manipulation of the perceptions and behaviours of the public, without their informed consent. 

Furthermore, the application of libertarian paternalist policies is prejudiced – it’s asymmetric because the embedded “nudges” are allegedly designed to target “help” at people who are deemed to behave irrationally; those who don’t make “optimal” decisions and so are not advancing their own or wider society’s interests, while the state interferes only minimally with people who are deemed to behave “rationally”. 

Of course, by some extraordinary coincidence, those who are regarded as behaving rationally are in the minority – they happen to be the very wealthiest citizens. You could easily be forgiven for thinking that behavioural economics is simply a reverberation from within a totalising New Right neoliberal echo chamber. Of course it follows that poverty is the result of the cognitive “deficits” of the poor.

The government would have you believe that poverty has nothing to do with their programme of austerity, their socioeconomic policies, which are generous and indulgent towards the very wealthy, at the expense of the poorest citizens, and the subsequent steeply rising socioeconomic inequality. It’s because of the faulty decision-making of those in poverty.

The political shift back to a behavioural approach to poverty also adds a dimension of cognitive prejudice which serves to reinforce established power relations and perpetuate another layer of prejudice and inequality. It is assumed that those with power and wealth have cognitive competence and know which specific behaviours and decisions are “best” for poor citizens, who are assumed to lack cognitive skills or “bandwidth” (basic cognitive resources). 

It seems to me that the behavioural economists have colluded with the Conservatives in an ideological re-write of the principles of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. They say, for example:

“Research shows that money worries can absorb cognitive bandwidth, leaving less cognitive resources to make optimal decisions.”

“Absorb cognitive bandwidth”? What a load of technocratic psychobabbling and politically expedient tosh.

The solution to the problem of people’s widespread “money worries” isn’t nudge – which is simply more ideology to prop up existing ideology. The answer is to increase the income of those struggling with financial difficulties after seven years of austerity, stagnant wages and a rising cost of living. No amount of nudging poor people will redistribute wealth or reverse the effects of bad political decision-making.   

Maslow said that hunger, homelessness, being unable to keep warm – problems arising when we don’t have resources to meet our basic physical needs – means that our cognitive priorities are reduced to that of just survival. It means that we can’t fulfil our other “higher level” needs until we address our survival prerequisites. So looking for work and meeting compliance and welfare conditionality commitments by jumping through the endless ordeals that the Department for Work and Pensions put in people’s path to “nudge”  them away from social security isn’t going to happen.

I shouldn’t have to say this in 2017, but I will: people have to meet their needs for food, fuel and shelter, or they will simply die. That’s a pretty all-consuming attention grabber. Or struggling to survive absorbs all of a person’s “cognitive bandwidth” if you prefer. It takes up all of your time and effort and becomes your only priority. It’s hardly rocket science, yet the government and their team of behavioural economists seem to be deliberately failing to grasp this fundamental, empirically verified fact. Rather than addressing the socioeconomic and political reasons for poverty, the emphasis is on intrusive state tinkering with the psychological effects of poverty. 

Maslow once said that “The good or healthy society would then be defined as one that permitted people’s highest purposes to emerge by ensuring the satisfying of all their basic needs.”

Instead in the UK, the government employs a Nudge Unit to define how and justify why the UK is a shamefully regressive place where many ordinary citizens are hungry, homeless and without the essential necessities to live. That’s because of neoliberal policies that create crass inequalities, by the way, and has nothing to do with people’s “cognitive bandwidth” or their “optimal” decision-making capacities. 

Behavioural economics makes the political problem of poverty one of poor people’s decision-making capacity, whereas Maslow saw the problem for what it is – a lack of financial resources to meet basic needs. The answer isn’t to mess about nudging or “incentivising” people, and labelling them as “cognitively incompetent”: it is simply to ensure everyone has enough to eat, has shelter and can keep warm. It’s pretty simple, really, no excuses and no amount of managementspeak and psychobabble may exempt a government from ensuring citizens’ basic survival needs are met. Especially in a very wealthy, developed democracy. 

From the government’s perspective, poor people cause poverty. Apparently the theories and “insights” of cognitive bias don’t apply to the theorists applying them to increasingly marginalised social groups. Nor do behavioural economists bother with the “cognitive bias” of the hoarding wealthy, or those whose decisions caused the global crash and Great Recession and the subsequent political decision-making that led to austerity, more aggressive neoliberalism, exploitatively low, stagnating wages and a punitive welfare state that disciplines and punishes citizens, rather than providing for their basic survival needs – which was its original purpose.

No-one is nudging the nudgers. 

Conservative policies are extending a behavioural, cognitive and decision-making hierarchy that simply reflects the existing and increasingly steep hierarchy of power and wealth and reinforces competitive individualism and the unequal terms and conditions of neoliberalism. Behavioural economics has simply added another facet to traditional Conservative class-based prejudice, and a prop for the Conservatives’ profound ideological dislike of the welfare state and other public services.

It’s not “science”, it’s ideology paraded as science 

In the UK, the Behavioural Insight Team is testing libertarian paternalist ideas for conducting public policy by running experiments in which many thousands of participants receive various “treatments” at random. There are ethical issues arising from the use of randomised control trials (RCTs) to test public policies on an unsuspecting population. While medical researchers generally observe strict ethical codes of practice, in place to protect subjects, the new behavioural economists are much less transparent in conducting research and testing public policy interventions.

Consent to a therapy or a research protocol must possess three features in order to be valid. It should be voluntarily expressed, it should be the expression of a competent subject, and the subject should be adequately informed.

It’s highly unlikely that people subjected to the extended use and broadened application of welfare sanctions gave their informed consent to participate in experiments designed to test the theory of “loss aversion,” for example. (See The Nudge Unit’s u-turn on benefit sanctions indicates the need for even more lucrative nudge interventions, say nudge theorists.) Furthermore, the experiments are shaped by certain underpinning assumptions. They are not value-free, as claimed.

There is of course nothing in place to prevent a government from deliberately exploiting a theoretical perspective and research framework as a way to test out highly unethical and ideologically driven policies. How appropriate is it to apply a biomedical model of prescribed policy “treatments” to people experiencing politically and structurally generated social problems, such as unemployment, inequality and poverty, for example?

Conversely, how appropriate is it to frame illness and disability purely in terms of  individuals’ “faulty” perceptions and behaviours? The de-medicalisation of illness and disability is also a part of the Conservatives’ behaviourist turn, which is part of a justification narrative for the dismantling of support services and social security for ill and disabled people who are unable to work. (I’ve written at length about this here – Rogue company Unum’s profiteering hand in the government’s work, health and disability green paper.)

I guess if the government’s purposeful behavioural modification ordeals fail and you die, then at least the state will know that you were “genuinely” in need of support, after all. This logic operates rather like a medieval inquisitional technique, embedded at the core of the Kafkaesque Work Capability Assessment. The government inform us that this is necessary to aim at sifting out those “most in need” so that the government may “target” support provision to “ensure” that this ever-changing, politically redefined and shrinking group of “those most in need” are somehow distinguished from among the much larger group of those who are, in fact, most in need of support.

The government cannot see the woods because they are so busy indiscriminately pruning and felling the trees. 

Most people lacking a strong masochistic tendency would not try to claim disability support unless they desperately needed to. The very tiny minority of fraudulent claimants (less than 0.7%, and some of that tiny percentage includes bureaucratic errors) are unlikely to be deterred by the introduction of ordeals to the social security system, yet this vicious tactic was suggested by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) among others, to “deter fraud.”

However, byzantine “eligibility tests”, an authoritarian monitoring regime to coerce conformity and compliance of social security recipients, and a “robust” shaming and prosecution policy deter “genuine” applicants. Such processes are extremely intrusive, punitive and ultimately serve to reinforce public and political prejudices.  

Only those who are truly needy and disadvantaged would tolerate this level of state inflicted, coercive, aggressive and crude behaviourism for the provision of completely inadequate levels of support, through public shaming and through frequent, intrusive administrative forays into their personal lives. 

Governments in neoliberal countries portray welfare support as “profligacy” – an “unsustainable” big state over-indulgence – and couple that with a narrative founded on an inextricable dichotomy – that of the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. Of course this is intentionally socially divisive: it purposefully marginalises and stigmatises those needing support, while creating resentment among those who don’t.   

The behaviourist perspective of structured ordeals as a deterrent is the same thinking that lies behind welfare sanctions, which are state punishments entailing the cruel removal of lifeline income for “non-compliance” in narrowly and rigidly defined “job seeking behaviours.” Sanctions are also described as a “behavioural incentive” to “help” and “encourage” people into work – the very language being used to describe the punitive actions of the state is also a nudge.

Behavioural linguistic techniques are being used to extend the view that state inflicted punishment is somehow in your best interests. It also serves to deny people’s accounts and experiences of punitive and unfair state interventions resulting in often harrowing adverse outcomes.

People who are ill, it is proposed, should be sanctioned, too, which would entail having their lifeline basic health care removed. Apparently, this stripping away of public services is also for our own good. 

The welfare state originally arose to ensure citizens can meet their basic survival needs. Now it is assumed that those who need social security are psychologically abnormal or inept, and have fundamental character flaws (“undeserving”). Social security is no longer about ensuring minimal standards of living, the government is now preoccupied with disciplining the “feckless” poor, apparently aiming to punish them out of poverty.   

On the face of it, welfare policy has been perceived over recent years as facing the challenge of balancing the three goals of keeping costs low, providing sufficient standards of living, and ensuring “work incentives.” This has sometimes been referred to as the “iron triangle” of welfare reform. The term reflects the difficult implicit trade-off between these three conflicting aims. It’s perceived that improvement of one dimension is usually gained only at the expense of weakening another. 

Neoliberal governments have tended to use aims one and three to justify the prioritisation of the second aim, which entails the lowering of costs “on the taxpayer” by lowering the standard of living for welfare recipients, in order to “incentivise” them to find work. The shift to behavioural explanations of poverty – that people need incentives to find a job in the first place – doesn’t, however, stand up to much scrutiny once we see that a large proportion of welfare spending actually goes towards supplementing low wages for those in work. The largest proportion of welfare spending is on pensions. The proportion of the welfare budget taken up by people who are unemployed is very small.

Image result for welfare spending uk pie chart

In the UK, the government have also introduced behaviourist in-work sanctions for people who “fail to progress” in work. Yet most wages are decided by employers, not employees. It’s not as if we have a government that values collective bargaining and the input of trade unions, after all. That’s a policy, therefore, that simply sets people up for sanctioning. It’s irrational and needlessly cruel.

It’s worth keeping in mind that social security constitutes a country’s lowest income security net. The levels of welfare benefits were originally calculated to meet only essential needs, providing sufficient income to cover the costs of just food, fuel and shelter, and are therefore directly related to the very minimum standards of living. 

Criticism of the “scientific” methodology of behavioural economics: promoting neoliberal outcomes and neurototalitarianism

“Epistemic governance” refers to the cognitive and knowledge-related paradigms that underlie a society. Behavioural economists have presented randomised control trials (RCTs) as providing “naively neutral” evidence of what policy interventions work, but this is misleading. RCTs are advocated as an effective way of determining whether or not a particular intervention has been successful at achieving a specific outcome in a narrow context.

One concern about the use of RCTs in public policy-making is that this method is being promoted as the “gold standard” in a hierarchy of evidence that marginalises qualitative research. Quantitative methodology significantly reduces the scope for citizen feedback and detailed accounts of their experiences. The issues of interpretation and meaning are lost in the desire to “tame complexity with numbers”. Such a non-prefigurative (insofar as it is founded on hierarchical values and doesn’t tend to reflect cultural diversity), non-dialogic approach is profoundly incompatible with democratic principles. 

As libertarian paternalism is specifically designed to lead to predetermined outcomes in terms of the behaviours it aims to produce – and it’s also constructed a rather miserable and prejudiced narrative of some humans’ cognitive capabilities (only poor people, reflecting traditional Conservative prejudices) – a major concern is that the predetermined structuring of choice, together with “re-normalisation” strategies, exclude the potential for public engagement and participation in debates concerning what choices and collective normative changes are actually beneficial, fair, desirable, appropriate, safe, right and wrong.

And of course, that raises a serious question about what constitutes “evidence”? 

It’s not so long ago that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) manufactured evidence, using fake testimonies, claiming that people actually felt they had benefitted from welfare sanctions. Yet when pressed regarding the authenticity of the testimonies, the DWP then claimed: 

“The photos used are stock photos and along with the names do not belong to real claimants. The stories are for illustrative purposes only. We want to help people understand when sanctions can be applied and how they can avoid them by taking certain actions. Using practical examples can help us achieve this.” 

Those “testimonies” were neither practical nor genuine “examples”.

Academic research, statements from charities and support organisations, the evidence from the National Audit Office, and many individual case studies detailing severe hardship and harm to citizens because of welfare sanctions, have been presented to the government, all of which indicate that the use of financial penalties and harsh conditionality in administering social security does not help people into work. This evidence has been consistently discounted by the government, with claims that the statements are “politically biased” or that “no causal link between policy and adverse effects has been established”. The government have frequently dismissed citizens’ accounts of their harrowing experiences of sanctions as “anecdotal evidence”.

In this respect, libertarian paternalism may be seen as a form of neurototalitarianism. It’s a form of governance that imposes needs and requirements on citizens without any democratic engagement, without acknowledgement or recognition of citizen’s agency, identity, and their own self-defined needs. 

Although advocates of RCTs have argued that this methodology excludes the unverified claims of “experts” in policy making, it ought to be noted that behavioural economists are nonetheless self-made “experts”, with their own technocratic language and mindset, and their “knowledge” of what human behaviours, cognitive strategies and perceptions are “optimal” and serve the “best interests” of the majority of citizens.

Behavioural economics isn’t “science”: it’s founded on a premise of economic moralism. Nudge is all about “encouraging” citizens to behave in social ways relying on market “incentives”, as opposed to regulations. It’s the invisible hand of the state, where increasing privatisation, deregulation, austerity and the shrinking state corresponds with increasing psychoregulation of citizens.

Yet if anything, behavioural economics has highlighted that the neoliberal state is fundamentally flawed – that there are major limitations of the magical thinking behind the “markets-know-best” politics. 

In their critique of the economic rational-behaviour model, libertarian paternalists nonetheless advocate a perspective of rules, adjustments and remedies that ultimately serve to simply modify behaviours to fit the rational-behaviour model – which describes society in terms of self-interested individuals’ actions as explained through rationality, in which choices are consistent because they are made according to personal preference – to deliver the same neoliberal outcomes, by nudging public decision-making from that based on cognitive bias towards those decisions which are deemed cognitively rational. And what passes as “cognitively rational” is defined in terms of economic outcomes, by the neoliberal state.

This of course overlooks the limits on choice that neoliberal policies themselves impose, within in a system constrained by competitive individualism and “market forces”. It also assumes that the choice architects know what our best interests actually are. 

The state is seen as acting to “re-rationalise” citizens: recalibrating perceptions, cognition and behaviours but without engaging with citizens’ rational processes. One criticism of behavioural economics is that it bypasses rational processes altogether, acting below our level of awareness, and as such, it doesn’t offer opportunities for learning and reflection. It’s more about a stimulus-response type of approach. 

In a paper called Personal Responsibility and Changing Behaviour: the state of knowledge and its implications for public policy (Halpern et al., 2004) a group of libertarian paternalists, touting for business, outline a moral argument in which state policies increasingly should “cajole” people in the direction of personal responsibility and choice, since it is said that such an approach “strengthens individual character” and “moral capacity”, following a parental rationale of a distinctly Conservative disciplinary notion of “tough love” (p. 7).

A patchwork of theories on the ecology of behaviour change are discussed in the report: Ivan Pavlov and Burrhus Frederic Skinner’s outdated accounts of an authoritarian brand of behaviourism and conditioning, adaptation and rewards; Robert Cialdini’s business treatise on marketing, influence, compliance, and automatic behaviour patterns; the work of behavioural economists such as Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (1974) on heuristics; and community theories of behaviour, including concepts such as capability, social networks, social capital and social marketing (from Bourdieu, Coleman, Putnam – all cited in Halpern et al., 2004).

The role of the state here is seen not as a service provider to fulfil citizens’ needs, but as an “enabler”, and a public relations service for neoliberalism. The state has become an ultimate re-calibrator of citizens’ perceptions, attitudes, expectations, values and behaviours within the narrow confines of a neoliberal context.

Furthermore, Halpern says of nudge: “it enables public goods to be provided with a lower tax burden.” Describing tax as a “burden” is a form of default setting. Tax may also be seen as an essential public finance mechanism which is essential to economic and social development, providing sufficient revenue to support the productive and redistributive functions of the state. There is also an assumption that cheaper public goods are desirable, and will maintain their functional capacity and social benefits. 

David Cameron’s “Big Society”, the Conservatives’ shift from a rights-based society, to one that entails “citizen responsibilities”, and of course their “low tax low, welfare” perspective are all designs from the libertarian paternalist’s template. Although nudge has been sold in the UK as a way of reducing state intervention, such policies have in reality become more about justifying the increasing intrusion of the state in our everyday life. 

As I’ve hinted, nudge is about much more than changing behaviours based on cognitive bias to promote state defined citizens’ interests. It is also used to “reset” the public’s normative expectations, and for the promotion and inculcation of a fresh set of normative values of personal responsibility, self-help and self-discipline, claimed to be required in order to fulfil policy goals and justify interventions. Nudge is therefore reshaping public expectations regarding a “new relationship” between citizen and the state, where the burden of obligation is being increasingly and disproportionately placed on the poorest citizens.

Appeals to evidence-based policymaking are particularly misleading when they take out the context for interpreting specific forms of evidence. Libertarian paternalism is an imprecise theoretical approach to governance, and has resisted attempts to definitively codify its principles. 

It seems to be a blend of social marketing techniques, psycholinguistics, psychographics, habituation and (re-)normalisation strategies. Libertarian paternalism draws heavily on psychology, capitalising on our dispositions, manipulating choices, perceptions  and behaviours, by using a neuropolitical approach to fulfil neoliberal outcomes. Some of us have also dubbed this approach “neuroliberalism.”

Appeals to evidence in policymaking and debate are also frequently met with further questions on what sort of evidence counts, what it means – how the evidence is to be interpreted, what evidence is credible and importantly, how the policy question is defined and framed in the first place. As I’ve discussed, claims of “evidence” rest on tacit assumptions made in a specific context, so their transferability to another context is controversial. 

Nudge fails to accommodate a range of diverse knowledge sources, public accounts and it does nothing to address the underlying assumptions embedded in behavioural economics, or those of policy-makers using it as a tool to fulfil their own aims and objectives, nor does it acknowledge its own limitations. It fails to acknowledge and reflect different epistemic (relating to knowledge and/or to the degree of its validation) and ethical concerns. Nudge doesn’t accommodate democratic dialogue with, and alternative accounts from, other experts, and most importantly, from citizens. 

This means that any arising new evidence that may challenge the validity and reliability of behavioural economics theory is generally discounted, regardless of the nature and quality of that evidence. And a further problem is that new evidence also requires its own expert interpretation and assessment.

This is a key problem of epistemic governance. The production of evidence for policymaking should also be governed. Evidence is marshalled, interpreted and made to fit policy frameworks by experts. Those advocating the use of RCTs are experts,  specialising in a highly codified form of knowledge, which is not easily accessible to the general public. The claim is that behavioural economics and the findings of RCTs are relevant to policy. This raises some fundamental questions, then, about who counts as an expert, what counts as expertise and similarly, we definitely need to keep asking: what does and does not count as evidence? 

My point is that epistemic governance – the production of knowledge for governance – also needs be governed. It’s a point that others who research policy have also raised.

In order for research data to be of value and of use, it must be both reliable and valid. Reliability refers to the replicability and repeatability of findings. If the study were to be done a second time, would it yield the same results? If so, the data are reliable. If more than one person is observing behaviour or some event, all observers should agree on what is being recorded in order to claim that the data are reliable. Validity refers to the credibility of the research. Are the findings genuine? If a test is reliable, that does not mean that it is valid.

In order to determine cause and effect relationships, three basic conditions must be met:

  1. co-occurrence
  2. correct sequence or timing
  3. ruling out other explanations or “third factors/variables.”

The production of evidence, via testable hypotheses, to verify “knowledge” is insufficient if it is abstracted from the political context of policymaking in which problems are framed and knowledge is interpreted and given meanings.

I may have laboured the point, but it is a very important one. What counts as “evidence” is defined by the frame of reference, which also shapes which hypotheses are formulated and tested. I have already discussed how other forms of empirical evidence are discounted. The government have all too frequently used the quip “There is no evidence of causality between policy and stated events”.

Yet the Conservatives have refused to monitor the impact of their “reforms”, and have intentionally overlooked the important point that correlation often implies causation. Without conducting further investigation and examining the evidence, the government has no grounds whatsoever to dismiss the possibility of a causal relationship. It seems the government only value the principles of positivism when it comes to confronting other people’s knowledge and evidence that conflicts with their own.

Confirmation bias

To come at these problems from a slightly different angle, it’s worth considering the role of confirmation bias in knowledge production, which is the tendency to search for, select, favor, interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs, expectations, prejudices, theories and hypotheses because we want them to be true. It is a type of cognitive bias and a systematic error of inductive reasoning

Confirmation biases contribute to overconfidence (a person’s subjective confidence in his or her judgements is reliably greater than the objective accuracy of those judgements.) Iain Duncan Smith provided many memorable examples of cognitive bias. In July 2013, Duncan Smith was found by Andrew Dilnot, then Head of the UK Statistics Authority, to have broken their Code of Practice for Official Statistics for his and the DWP’s use of figures in support of, and to justify government policies.

Dilnot also stated that, following an earlier complaint about the handling of statistics by Duncan Smith’s Department, he had previously been told: “that senior DWP officials had reiterated to their staff the seriousness of their obligations under the Code of Practice and that departmental procedures would be reviewed”. 

Duncan Smith’s defence was that: “You cannot absolutely prove those two things are connected – you cannot disprove what I said. I believe this to be right.” Pseudoscience has thrived using similar arguments: propositions are presented as fact and assumed to be true unless you can actually prove otherwise. Unicorns, telekinesis, gnomes and angels exist because I can’t prove they don’t. 

This led Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and former chief economist at the Cabinet Office, to accuse the Conservative Party of going beyond spin and the normal political practice of cherry picking of figures, to the act of actually “making things up” with respect to the impact of government policy on employment and other matters. 

“I believe I’m right” is an example of someone more certain that they are correct than they deserve to be, and this authoritarian approach can maintain or even strengthen beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It demonstrates a government that is simply digging in the trenches of ideology.

Flawed decision-making due to such biases have commonly arisen in political and organisational contexts. Yet it is public, not political behaviours, that have come to be regarded as “adaptive” to fit highly partisan political frames of reference. Apparently it’s only citizens who make mistakes in their decision-making, and whose behaviours need to be rectified.

We are being told that a lot of what we think is wrong. This is the foundation on which the shift in political emphasis from macro-level interventions to micro-level psychointerventions rests. Yet without exploring alternative and comparative forms of knowledge, this is simply conjecture in justification of the mass provision of state perceptions, behaviours and endorsed lifestyles, not verified fact. 

Nudging neoliberalism

Behavioural economics has roots in the work of Herbert Simon –  another winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1978 – on bounded rationalityand grew enormously under the attention of Daniel Kahneman – another Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences winner – and Amos Tversky (1979), who argued that there are two broad features of human judgment and decision-making: various errors in coding mechanisms known as heuristics and biases, that lead to violations of the “laws” of logic and consistency. All of which differs from the neoclassical rational choice economic model, which portrays self-interested actors making rational choices in the market place. 

The prize in Economics is not one of the original Nobel Prizes, it wasn’t bequeathed by and instituted through Alfred Nobel‘s will. It was controversially established in 1968 through a donation from the Swedish Central Bank, on the bank’s 300th anniversary. In the late 1960s, Sweden’s central bank was actively campaigning for the country to pursue a more “market-friendly” approach, and the prize, which was established in 1968 to commemorate the bank’s 300th anniversary, became a tool with which to support this campaign. Of course, the prize gives economists a stamp of approval for the general public and politicians alike, legitimising their entire philosophy. 

Of the 74 laureates so far, 28 are affiliated with the University of Chicago, home of neoliberalism. Among those 28 winners are the early champions of neoliberalism, such as Milton Friedman and Friedrick Hayek. In fact the award has continually reinforced an ideology of the primacy of the “free market.” Hayek and Friedman lent great prestige to the cause of neoliberalism, which has contributed greatly to the creation of a rightward shift in the intellectual and political climate in western democracies.

Conservatives since Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan have been powerfully influenced by neoliberal economists. Thatcher’s first encounter with Hayek, for example, came when he published The Road to Serfdom in 1944. She read it as an undergraduate at Oxford, where it became a formative part of her authoritarian, distinctive and enduring outlook. She was radicalised at the age of 18.  

One area of influence on Thatcher’s New Right policy in particular was Hayek’s low regard of trade union power and collective wage bargaining, he saw it as the primary reason for the UK’s economic difficulties (inflation) during the 70s, stating:

“There can indeed be little doubt to a detached observer that the privileges then granted to the trade unions have become the chief source of Britain’s economic decline.” 

The incoming Labour government in 1974 were also blamed for failing to curb the unions during the inflation crisis. However, major contributing factors to the growth of inflation were rapidly rising oil prices, which increased by 70%, tripling in the early 1970s, and the “Barber Boom and Bust”. In the 1972 budget, the Conservative chancellor, Anthony Barber, oversaw a major deregulation and liberalisation of the banking system, replaced purchase tax and Selective Employment Tax with Value Added Tax, and also relaxed exchange controls.

During his term, the economy suffered due to stagflation and industrial unrest, including a miners strike which led to the Three-Day Week. In 1972 he delivered a budget which was designed to return the Conservatives to power in an election expected in 1974 or 1975. This budget led to a period known as “The Barber Boom”.

The measures in the budget, which included a growth in credit (due to bank deregulation and liberalisation) and consumer spending, which helped create a consumer bubble, led to high inflation, rising living costs and subsequent wage demands from public sector workers. The Conservatives, however, were not returned to office, and Labour were left to deal with rising inflation subsequently, until Thatcher’s government took office.

Hayek pressed Thatcher to quickly cut public expenditure, urging her to balance the budget in one year rather than five – and (unbelievably) to follow more closely the example of Pinochet’s Chile. 

Under successive Conservative governments, and to some extend, under Blair’s New Labour, our society has been increasingly organised on overarching and totalising neoliberal principles. Socioeconomic conditions in the UK have fostered a hierarchical, unequal, competitive and above all, adversarial society, for many. 

Wealth is a private matter, whereas “national debt” has become public responsibility. The poorest citizens carry the largest burden of the debt, under the guise of austerity, which, the government claim, is an economic “necessity.” We are told there is no alternative. Any challenge to this ideological preference is met with contempt, and derisive comments that any policy entailing a shift from free market thinking and competitive individualism towards a more equitable, collectivist socioeconomic organisation is economically “incompetent”, “dangerous” and would require a “magic money tree” to “fund” it. Neoliberalism is held up as the ONLY choice we have regarding our socioeconomic organisation. Behavioural economics simply endorses and extends this hegemonic view.

Austerity is actually central to neoliberal economic strategy, and is one consequence of  right-wing libertarian “small state” dogma. Paradoxically, the role of the Conservative state has expanded rather than shrank, and is now all about enforcing public compliance and conformity within a socioeconomic system that is failing them, and the maintenance of strategies of fear, diversion, disempowerment, social divisions, a politically manufactured “scarcity”, a lowering of public expectations and the formulation of “deterrents.” And the institutionalisation of techniques of persuasion, public relations strategies and propaganda, to prop up and maintain the status quo.

The Conservative’s answer to the social injuries inflicted by their overarching, aggressive neoliberalism is to apply the sticking plaster of more increasingly aggressive neoliberalism.

The behaviourist turn reflects a subtle form of psychoauthoritarianism, which is all about enforcing neoliberalism.

Some people were critical of the fact that Hayek shared the 1974 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences with Gunnar Myrdal for his “pioneering work in the theory of money and economic fluctuations and … penetrating analysis of the interdependence of economic, social and institutional phenomena.” Milton Friedman was awarded the 1976 prize in part for his work on monetarism. Awarding the prize to Friedman caused international protests. Friedman was accused of supporting the military dictatorship in Chile because of the relationship of economists of the University of Chicago to Pinochet.

Nudge is a technocratic and authoritarian solution to the terminal condition of neoliberalism. Nudge is being used to prop up a failing brand of particularly virulent Conservative end-stage capitalism. It’s basically the PR, packaging, marketing and advertising industry for, and enforcement of, neoliberalism. Because neoliberalism can’t sell itself to the public.

Ask General Augusto Pinochet. He used the “caravan of death” method of selling the “economic miracle” – neoliberalism – to the populace of Chile. He felt that in order to market the market economy, he simply had to kill all of his political opponents. The Rettig Commission puts the count of murdered individuals at approximately 3,000 during the 17-year Pinochet’s military junta

Related image 

Behavioural economics provides the government with more subtle form of authoritarianism that is about psychological coercion. But citizens are nonetheless dying as a consequence of government policies.


Although traditionally, decisions made by technocrats are based on information derived from methodology rather than opinion, in the UK, behavioural economists, or at least those using behavioural economics in policy, tend to make decisions derived from ideology. 

Technocracy became a popular movement in the United States during the Great Depression when it was held that technical professionals, like engineers and scientists, would have a better understanding than politicians regarding the economy’s inherent complexity. Technocracy often arises during economically turbulent periods. In the states, we saw the rise of cybernetic and system models of society, from the likes of Talcott Parsons.

We also saw the development of political behaviouralism, a political pseudoscience that did not represent or reflect “genuine” political research. Instead, empirical consideration took precedence over normative and moral examination of politics. (See the is/ought distinction and naturalistic fallacy for further discussion on the key problems with this approach.)

Behaviouralism emphasised “an objective, quantified approach” to explain and predict political behaviours. It is associated with the rise of the behavioural sciences, modelled after the natural sciences. Behaviouralists also claimed they can explain political behaviour from an “unbiased, neutral” point of view.

Of course, behaviouralism is often most often attributed to the work of University of Chicago professor Charles Merriam who wrote in the 1920s and 1930s following the Great Depression.

The more things change, it seems the more they stay the same.

Behaviouralism was also founded on an insistence on distinguishing between facts and values. Quantitative evidence versus the abstract and the “anecdotal”. Sound familiar?

However, there’s also a difference between facts and meanings, human behaviours are meaningful and purposeful, human agency arises in contexts of intersubjectively shared meanings, from which there is no cultural or mind-independent, objective vantage point from which we may observe with value neutrality. And surely, abstract values such as “freedom”, “democracy” and “equality” are necessarily central to political discourse. Democratic politics must necessarily draw on the qualitative and the normative dimensions of social realities. 

Behaviouralism was an inevitable consequence of positivism. Auguste Comte (1798-1857,) who was regarded by many as the founding father of social sciences, particularly sociology, and who coined the term positivism,” was a Conservative. He believed social change should happen only as part of an organic, gradual evolutionary process, and he placed value on traditional social order, conventions and structures. Although the notion of positivism was originally claimed to be about the sovereignty of positive (verified) value-free, scientific facts, its key objective was politically Conservative. Positivism in Comte’s view was “the only guarantee against the communist invasion.” (Therborn, 1976: 224).

The thing about the fact-value distinction is that those who insist on it being rigidly upheld the most generally tend to use it the most to disguise their own whopping great ideological commitments. In psychology, we call this common defence mechanism splitting. It’s a very traditionally Conservative way of rigidly demarcating the world, imposing hierarchies of ranking, priority and order, to assure their own ontological security and maintain the status quo, regardless of how absurd this shrinking island of certainty appears to the many who are exiled from it.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Comte’s starting point is the same as Hayeks, (another Nobel prize economist), namely the existence of a spontaneous order. It’s a Conservative ideological premise, and this is one reason why the current neoliberal  government embrace the notion of positivism without any acknowledgement of its controversies.  

Behaviouralism was a political, not a scientific concept. Moreover, since behaviouralism is not a research tradition, but a political movement, definitions of behaviouralism follow what behaviouralists wanted. Behaviouralists believe “truth or falsity of values (such as democracy, equality, and freedom, etc.) cannot be established scientifically and are beyond the scope of legitimate inquiry. They are therefore dismissed from legitimate consideration.

Christian Bay believed behaviouralism was a pseudopolitical science and that it did not represent “genuine” political research. Bay objected to empirical consideration taking precedence over normative and moral examination of politics.

In sociology, interpretivist researchers assert that the social world is fundamentally unlike the natural world insofar as the social world is meaningful in a way that the natural world is not. As such, social phenomena cannot be studied in the same way as natural phenomena. Interpretivism is concerned with generating explanations and extending understanding rather than simply describing, ranking and measuring social phenomena, and establishing basic cause and effect relationships. 

Behaviouralism initially represented a movement away from “naive empiricism“, but as an approach, it has been criticised for its naive scientism. Additionally, some critics believe that the separation of fact from value makes the empirical study of politics impossible.

Positivist politics was discarded half a century ago, as a reactionary and totalitarian doctrine. It is true to say that, in many respects, Comte was resolutely anti-modern, and he also represents a general retreat from Enlightenment humanism. His somewhat authoritarian positivist ideology, rather than celebrating the rationality of the individual and wanting to protect people from state interference, instead fetishised the scientific method, proposing that a new ruling class of authoritarian technocrats should decide how society ought to be run, and how people should behave. 

Which brings us back to the present. This is a view that the current government, with their endorsement and widespread experimental application of nudge theory, would certainly subscribe to.

History has witnessed the “scientific” theories of Darwin politically caricatured and applied to policy-making and society. We also witnessed the terrible conclusion of social Darwinism, as it inspired and underpinned the eugenics movement, which clearly played a critical role in the terrible genocide programmes, instigated and implemented by the technocratic government in Nazi Germany.

Leading Nazis, and early 1900 influential German biologists, revealed in their writings that Darwin’s theory and publications had a major influence upon Nazi race policies. The ideal that “all people are created equal”, which came to dominate Western ideology through human rights legislative frameworks, arising following the Second World War in response to the atrocities, has not been universal or constant among nations and cultures. Now, here in the UK, it has once again been replaced by neoliberal ideals of market place individualism and competition for “scarce” resources. 

The first formulation of the term “Nudge” and associated principles was developed in cybernetics by James Wilk around 1995 and described by Brunel University academic D. J. Stewart as “the art of the nudge” (sometimes referred to as micronudges.)

Nudge is founded on a variety of cognitive theories, and its methodology has been largely experimental. (See The new Work and Health Programme: government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work, for example.)

However, important questions have been raised about this approach as it has been advanced in both theory and practice. The recent adoption of wholesale experimentation by governments on a naive public, for example by the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team, the government of New South Wales, and others (Haynes et al, 2012) has attracted attention. In particular, the ethical implications of conducting experiments and the practical issues of their implementation raise important challenges around the maintenance of internal and external validity and the often competing demands of scientists and political decision-makers.

Behavioural economics has been used as a political legitimation of punitive welfare policies, entailing the removal of support for food, fuel and shelter, in the form of welfare sanctions. The government have refused to listen to evidence that challenges the basis of their justification. Nudge is being used as an authoritarian tool to ensure public conformity with inhumane policies and a neoliberal agenda. 

It also extends a supremacist view, in that the public are regarded as “cognitively incompetent”, the theories rest on the assumption that most people don’t know how to act in their own best interests, whatever those interests may be. Yet those formulating the nudges are somehow adept at making decisions and at deciding what is in our “best interests”. 

The coming of the policy lab and the legitimisation of political experimentation

Psychopolicy platforms are not simply the owners of information but are fast becoming owners of the infrastructures of society, too. Nudge has become a prop for neoliberal hegemony and New Right Conservative ideology. It’s become a technocratic fix – pseudo-psychology that doubles up as “common sense”, aimed at maintaining the socioeconomic order. It’s become a naturalised approach to public policy. 

How can behavioural economists claim objectivity when they are active participants within the (intersubjectively constructed) cultural, political, economic and social environment, sharing the same context that allegedly shapes everyone else’s perceptions, conceptions, cognitive capacities and behaviours? 

How exactly does behavioural economics itself miraculously transcend the reductionist and deterministic confines of bounded rationality, cognitive bias, and escape the stimulus-response chain? If all behaviours are determined, then so are political, psychological and economic theories and policies. And so is the pursuit of “objective” evidence.

As well as shaping behaviour, the psychopolitical messages being disseminated are all-pervasive, entirely ideological and not verifiably or reliably rational: they reflect and are shaping, for example, an anti-welfarism that sits with Conservative agendas for welfare “reform”, austerity, the “efficient” small state and also, are being used to legitimise these policy directions. Behavioural economics theory is even being used to “re-educate” our children as to how and who they should be.

Public and “social innovation” labs are enjoying enormous and lucrative political popularity. Nesta’s Innovation Lab has become a key player in the global circulation of policy lab ideas, and a connective node in a variety of lab networks. The Cabinet Office has established Policy Lab UK, a lab at the centre of government. GovLab in New York, MindLab in Denmark, and many others are now part of a global movement of organisations seeking to apply “radically new methods” to the practices of government

Social-emotional learning (SEL) encompasses concepts such as character, education, growth, mindset, “resilience”, “grit”, perseverance, so-called non-cognitive or non-academic and other mass marketed traditional and ghastly public school values, “personal qualities” and “competences.”  

In the last couple of years, social-emotional learning has emerged as a key policy priority from the work of international policy influencers such as the OECD and World Economic Forum; psychological entrepreneurs such as Angela Duckworth’s Character Lab” and Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset” work; venture capital-backed philanthropic advocates (e.g. Edutopia); powerful lobbying coalitions (CASEL) and institutions (Aspen Institute) and government agencies and partners, especially in the US (for example, the US Department of Education “grit” report of 2013) and in the UK: in 2014 an all-party parliamentary committee produced a sanctimoniousCharacter and Resilience Manifesto” in partnership with the Centre Forum think tank, with the Department for Education following up with funding for schools to outsource the development of character education programmes.

Apparently social mobility depends on the characters of people in a society, and has nothing to do with access to opportunities and socioeconomic inequalities. The Manifesto says: “Character and Resilience are major factors in social mobility but are often overlooked in favour of things which are more tangible and easier to measure.” Or more obvious and strongly correlated.

Social-emotional learning theory is the product of a fast policy network of “psy” entrepreneurs, global policy advice, media advocacy, philanthropy, think tanks, technology research and development and venture capital investment.

Together, this alliance have produced shared narratives and vocabularies, aspirations, and offers techniques of quantification of the “behavioural indicators” of classroom behaviours that correlate to psychologically defined categories of character, mindset, grit, and other personal qualities defined by social-emotional learning theory.

As Agnieszka Bates has argued in The management of ‘emotional labour’ in the corporate re-imagining of primary education in England, that psychological advocates of SEL have conceptualized character as determined, but malleable, as well as measurable. SEL defines and manages the character skills that are most valuable to the labour market. As such, she describes SEL as a psycho-economic fusion of economic goals and psychological discourse in a corporatized education system. Specific algorithms and metrics have already been devised by prominent psycho-economic centres of expertise to measure the economic value of social-emotional learning. 

Policies that prioritise “resilience” tend to put the onus of inequalities, poverty and other difficult circumstances and disaster responses on individuals rather than collective, publicly coordinated efforts. Tied to the emergence of neoliberal discourse, the political promotion of  individual citizens’ resilience diverts attention away from governmental responsibility and towards localised, laissez-faire responses. How the term “resilience” or “grit” is defined affects research focuses; different or insufficient definitions will lead to inconsistent research about the same concepts.

Research on resilience has become more heterogeneous in its outcomes and measures, convincing some researchers to abandon the term altogether due to it being attributed to all outcomes of research where results were more positive than expected. Other researchers have pointed to cultural relativity, for example, in the area of indigenous health, where they have shown the impact of culture, history, community values, and geographical settings on resilience in indigenous communities.

Another problem with this type of character education is that it promotes an amoral and careerist “looking out for number one” perspective. This is simply neoliberal competitive individualism in the guise of psychological constructs, rather than being tethered to, say, social conscience or moral imperatives. Achievement is narrowly defined as an endless competition for money, status, highly specific types of “success” and the next win. 

It’s an important distinction, because while it’s fair to acknowledge that it takes grit, courage and self-control to be a successful doctor, teacher or social worker, exactly the same could be said about a suicide bomber or mass murderer. I‘m sure many psychopaths and villians would have scored extremely well in such character assessments, being gritty, extremely hard-working, resilient, supremely self-controlled, charming and wildly optimistic.

Empathy, justice, collectivism and public service seem to be conspicuously absent in the educational shopping list of desirable dog eat dog character traits.

It’s difficult to miss the major influence of Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson’s Character Strengths and Virtues, which was a major contribution to the methodological study of “positive psychology,” embedded in SEL. Given their focus on “improving human functioning” and “wellbeing”, positive psychology is closely related to “coaching psychology.”

However, Seligman and Peterson’s 24 “character strengths” were derived from religious and philosophical texts, and not from empirical evidence or scientific discourse, it could be argued that opinion has shaped research here rather than research shaping opinion. Furthermore, most of the 24 strengths do not have significant association with all positive outcomes and various studies yield contradictory results. Additionally, some empirical studies show that development of some character strengths can lead to degradation of other strengths. 

In Positive Psychology: A Foucauldian CritiqueMatthew McDonald and Jean O’Callahan argue that the “character strength” approach reflects a new political system of surveillance that risks creating an unintended consequence: disillusionment and alienation in much the same way that the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) has achieved by marginalising those whose characters do not conform to society’s norms”. Moreover, it is a new regulatory tool for selection, control, and discrimination in the workplace, just as “personality measures” have been used in the past.

The authors further argue that such an approach may influence organisational culture by manipulating employee identity to control and coerce their workforce into more productive modes of functioning. Finally, they believe that Strength-Approaches support neoliberalism in treating the social domain as an economic domain, to promote self-governance, self-reliance and thus serves as tool in the implementation of current workplace policy and welfare “reform” in a number of Western nations, especially the US and UK.

The authors say that positive psychology privileges particular modes of functioning by classifying and categorising character strengths and virtues, supporting a neoliberal economic and political discourse, and has an “adversarial dialogue, with humanistic psychology.” 

Central to antihumanism more generally is the view that concepts of “human nature” “man”, or “humanity” should be rejected as historically relative or metaphysical. Nietzsche argues in Genealogy of Morals that human rights exist as a means for the weak to constrain the strong; as such, they do not facilitate the emancipation of life, but instead, deny it.

However, human rights were formulated to ensure that the powerful are accountable to citizens, and promote the idea that all life has equal worth, regardless of social status. “Constraining” genocide is not only acceptable, it’s desirable. 

Humanist Tzvetan Todorov identified within modernity a trend of thought which emphasises science and within it, the trend towards a deterministic view of the world. He clearly identifies positivist theorist Auguste Comte as an important proponent of this view. 

For Todorov Scientism does not eliminate the will but decides that since the results of science are valid for everyone, this will must be something shared, not individual. In practice, the individual must submit to the collectivity, which “knows” better than he does.” The autonomy of the will is maintained, but it is the will of the group, not the person…scientism has flourished in two very different political contexts…The first variant of scientism was put into practice by totalitarian regimes.” (The Imperfect Garden. 2001. Pg. 23)

Positivism is a form of epistemological totalitarianism. It is an outdated view that society, like the physical world, operates according to general laws, and that all authentic knowledge is that which is verified.

However, the verification principle is itself unverifiable.

Positivism tends to present superficial and descriptive rather than meaningful, in-depth and explanatory accounts of social events and phenomena. In psychology, behaviourism has been the doctrine most closely associated with positivism. Behaviour from this perspective can be described and explained without the need to make ultimate reference to mental events, emotions or to internal psychological processes. Psychology is, according to behaviourists, the isolated “science” of behaviour, and not the mind.

This approach, which has no regard for human reasoning, meanings and phenomenological experience, is echoed in behavioural economics, which generally doesn’t engage with people at the level of conscious awareness and rationality. It is claimed that nudges only work “in the dark,” as it were.

While positivists more generally locate causal relationships at the level of observable surface events, critical realists locate them at the level of deeper, underlying generative mechanisms. For example, in science, gravity is an underlying mechanism that is not directly observable, but it does generate observable effects. In sociology, on a basic level, Marx’s determining base (which determines superstructure) may be regarded as a generative mechanism which gives rise to emergent and observable properties. 

A RCT is a positivist research model in which people are randomly assigned to an intervention or a control (a group with no intervention) and this allows narrow comparisons to be made. Widely accepted as the “gold standard” for clinical trials, the foundation for evidence-based medicine, RCTs are used to establish causal relationships. These kinds of trials usually have very strict ethical safeguards to ensure the fair and ethical treatment of all participants, and these safeguards are especially essential in government trials, given the obvious power imbalances and potential for abuse. A basic principle expressed in the Nuremberg Code is the respect due to persons and the value of a person’s autonomy. And life.

Epistemology is the study or theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge, especially with reference to its limits, reliability and validity. It’s invariably linked with how a researcher perceives our relationship with the world and what “social reality” is (ontology), and how we ought to investigate that world (methodology).

For example, in sociology, some theorists hold that social structures largely determine our behaviour, and so behaviour is predictable and objectively measurable, others emphasise human agency, and believe that we shape our own social reality to a degree, and that it’s mutually and meaningfully negotiated and unfixed. Therefore, detail of how we make sense of the world and navigate it is crucially important, and so is the context.  Behavioural economics and any form of epistemic governance must surely accommodate and reflect this complexity and plurality of perspective.

Neoliberalism is failing. It’s not failing because populations lack rationality, cognitive capacity or “character”: it’s failing because neoliberalism itself doesn’t accommodate and reflect rationality, nor does it fulfil even basic public needs. It places limits on human development and stifles potential.

The political response is also irrational and reflects cognitive bias. The response, so far, has been aimed at coercing citizens to “adapt” to a failing socioeconomic policy framework, rather than to change the framework itself.

Image result for chomsky neoliberalism



I don’t make any money from my work. I am disabled because of illness and have a very limited income. But you can help by making a donation to help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.


Austerity is a con, the Tories are authoritarians and they conflated the fact-value distinction.

539627_450600381676162_486601053_n (2)
One of the first things I realised as an undergraduate is that social “sciences” aren’t. My very first essay was on the topic of the “scientific” basis of sociology and its methodology, and my reading took me deep into the labyrinth of history and philosophy of science. I concluded that science itself isn’t as “scientific” as we are led to believe, let alone a discipline that aims at the study of inter-subjectively constructed human behaviours in a social context. I’ve been attempting to rescue anyone that has succumbed to the mythical, positivist, fraudulent chimera called “objectivity” ever since.

As a critical interpretivist, I believe that social reality is not “out there” waiting to be discovered: we are constructing and reconstructing it meaningfully. However, politically, there’s been a marked shift away from understanding the lived experiences of real people in context: a systematic dehumanisation. The Tories have depopulated social policy. This is a characteristic of authoritarianism, and other hallmarks include stigmatisation of social groups, moral disengagement, moral exclusion, impunity, and a societal “bystander apathy”. (See also Allport’s ladder, which is a measure of the manifestation of prejudice and discrimination in a Society. It’s also an explanation of the stages of genocide, and how the Holocaust happened.)

And before anyone invokes Reductio ad Hitlerum or Godwin’s Law, I will point out in advance that it would be unreasonable where such a comparison is appropriate and reasonable, as it is in this case. (For example, in discussions of the dangers involved in eugenics, persecution and stigmatisation of any social group, or tolerance of racist and nationalist political parties, and propaganda campaigns used to promote and justify any of these). In such a context, the dismissal of someone’s proposition on this basis becomes its own form of association fallacy and Ad Hominem attack.

Upwards and onwards then.

Authoritarian legitimacy is often based on emotional appeal, especially the identification of the regime as a “necessary evil” to combat easily recognisable societal problems, such as economic crises.

Authoritarian regimes commonly emerge in times of political, economic, or social instability, and because of this, especially during the initial period of authoritarian rule, such Governments may have broad public support. Many citizens won’t immediately recognise authoritarianism, especially in formerly liberal and democratic countries. In the UK, there  has been an incremental process of un-democratising, permeated by a wide variety of deliberative practices which have added to the problem of recognising it for what it is.

Authoritarian leaders typically prefer and encourage a population that is uninformed and apathetic about politics, with no desire to participate in the political process. Authoritarian Governments often work via propaganda to cultivate such public attitudes, by fostering a sense of a deep divide between social groups, society and Government, they tend to generate prejudice between social groups, and repress expressions of dissent, using media control, law amendments or quietly editing existing laws.

Many of us are unaware of the sheer extent to which this is going on. George Lakoff, researcher and cognitive linguist, said: “Conservatives have set up an incredible infrastructure. It’s a vast, unseen communication system and it’s very effective. This has been pointed out over and over to progressives and few seem to recognise the danger. They think it’s just propaganda and so they ignore it.” cognitive linguist. Lakoff is right. The deep and hidden state that the government have created is founded on nudge, ‘strategic communications’, data analytics and psychographic profiling. It includes the use of military grade psyops, aimed at changing people’s perceptions and decision making., with the ultimate aim of maintaining the status quo. This has profoundly perverted our democracy.

Whenever I listen to the Tories in Parliamentary debate, I’m reminded of the fact/value distinction – the alleged difference between descriptive statements (about what is) and prescriptive or normative statements (about what ought to be). Facts are one sort of thing, values another sort of thing, and the former never determine the latter. That’s the idea, anyway. But it isn’t considered to be very clear-cut when it comes to the “social sciences” such as politics and economics (although I would go further and propose that it’s not so clear-cut in the physical sciences, either. (Please see footnote).

The fact/value dichotomy was associated with the doctrine of logical positivism, that arose out of a supreme attempt at concept control. Beginning in the eighteenth century, some of the Enlightenment thinkers had declared that values (such as moral obligations) could not be derived from facts.

The verification principle, which is at the heart of the logical positivist doctrine, is a form of vigorous scientific anti-realism – restricting science to (empirically verifiable) observable aspects of nature. Inductive reasoning makes broad generalisations from specific observations. Such observations can be used to make “probability guesses” based on deductive reasoning.

This applies to many theoretical claims, including the beginning of time, gravity, the existence of matter (one of which is the Big Bang Theory), quantum events, the age of the Universe, the age of the Earth, the origin of the Moon, and the occurrence of other magical events in the past.

But the verification principle is itself unverifiable.

Values are involved in the very identification or determination of what is “fact”. As Einstein once said: “the theory tells you what you may observe.” 

Similarly, in social research, the area of study is intentionally selected. There are problems related to the connection between observation and interpretation also. Perhaps every observation is an interpretation, since “facts” are seen through a lens of perceptions, pre-conceptions and ideology. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation choose to study poverty. Cynical Iain Duncan Smith simply changes the definition of it.

Tory values. How else can we explain the flagrantes et virulentes Tory political rhetoric manifested in media-wide chanting for the blood and souls of the poor for the sake of “austerity”? There are no “facts” that can ever justify the persecution of a social group.

All of the knowledge and understanding we possess, whether of “facts”, values, or anything else, is contained within our consciousness, as structured by intentionality.  There isn’t an “objective”, mind-independent yardstick – we cannot step outside our consciousness to compare our ideas with anything else “out there” (please see footnote). We cannot experience our consciousness independently of intentionality, and we do have a degree of free-will and moral agency.

This means we have to face our morality, take responsibility for our ethical decisions and own our value-judgements. Rather than disguise them as “facts”, as the pseudo-positivist Tories frequently do.

It’s truly remarkable that Tories loudly attribute the capacity for moral agency to people claiming benefits, for example, formulating sanctions and “assessments” to both shape and question the morality of the poor constantly, yet stand outside of any obligation to morality themselves. It’s always someone else’s responsibility, never theirs.

Any claim to value-freedom in decision-making does not and cannot exempt us from moral responsibility, or justify moral indifference.

The consciousness of each of person is situated, rather than existing independently. A situation is an intentional act (or action) taken in social contexts as we experience them. Our understanding of our situation is embedded in conversational language. We are continually engaged in dialogues with other persons – “discourse”. Dialogue and narrative are how we make sense of the world.

It strikes me that in politics it all comes down to language. Those who can shape a controversial issue in the terms they prefer have the advantage in shaping public opinion. It’s called “framing”. Such concept control is a way of rigging the debate: You must talk about this controversial issue using our categories, terms, and definitions.

As a result, those who have the power to declare the terms of discourse have the power to determine the outcome of the debate, and furthermore, they have the power to determine what is accepted as “true or false”.

Really, for the Tories, it’s nothing more than linguistic bullying. You only need listen to Prime Minister’s Questions to understand this. For the Tories, both facts and values are irrelevant, despite their fake claims to fake empirical statistical data, all that matters is their ideological narrative. As a Society, we really need to pay much more attention to detail.

And we really need to challenge more. In terms of evidence, the Tories have not provided any verification that any of their policies work. There’s a growing body of rich qualitative data that reliably and consistently informs us that those policies do not work as claimed by the Tory-led Coalition, and the sheer volume of those accounts also informs us that this data is both credible and valid. So why are the Government so determined to ignore it?

Value-laden observation: their “theory” tells them what they may observe.

I’m not particularly au fait with economic theory, I just about grasp the differences between Keynes and Hayek, but I do know that after the British depression of the 1920s, Hayek promoted the idea that private investment, rather than Government spending, would promote sustainable growth. However, Keynes proposed that the Government’s job is to increase its own spending to offset the decline in public spending – that is by running a deficit to whatever extent necessary. To cut Government spending is a completely damaging policy in an economic slump. Keynes’s message was: you cannot cut your way out of a slump; you have to grow your way out. Eighty years on and the Tories have still not fully learned the lesson. Well, they probably have, but the fact is they simply don’t care enough to apply it.

I do understand ideology, and the case for austerity is not founded on economic principles, but rests entirely on social conservative ideology, with their wide embrace of neoliberalist principles.

The repetition of a lie ad nauseum is based on the idea Goebbels had – that repeated lies will somehow convince people that they are true. Cameron was busted when he repeatedly told the lie “We are paying down the debt.” Despite being rumbled, the Coalition have stuck with this lie doggedly. The bonus of the lie is that it may be used (and has been, repeatedly) to undermine the Opposition’s economic credibility, and the Tories particularly delight in the lie that it’s all Labour’s fault because they “overspent” as it further justifies austerity measures and starving public services of Government funding, with our paid taxes, as well as stripping our welfare provision and public services away.

Big labour boy

The Tories have carefully planned these measures for a long time, and attacks on our human rights and public services can be seen in plans and policies of previous Tory administrations. Such attacks on the most marginalised and vulnerable citizens and the undermining and steady destruction of social programs and services that may offer any support are an integral part of Tory ideological grammar.

A leading British academic concludes that the last Labour Government has been tarnished by spin and propaganda, while the US treasury secretary follows Gordon Brown’s lead. Jack Lew, the relatively new US treasury secretary, wrote recently in the Financial Times: “While long-term fiscal policy requires tough decisions, we knew we could not cut our way to prosperity”.

 in today’s Guardian says “Lew has now taken up the baton from Gordon Brown when it comes to politicians who understand the nature of the huge deficiency of demand in the world economy. People go on about the need for supply-side policies, but the fact is that there is no shortage of supply, but of demand, which continues to be constrained by the vogue for totally unnecessary and hugely destructive policies of austerity”.

Keegan quotes the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, who is a widely respected in the profession, from  the Oxford Review of Economic Policy. It covers the economic record of the 1997-2010 Labour Government in considerable and balanced detail: “The line that the Labour government was responsible for leaving a disastrous fiscal position which requires great national sacrifice to put right is pure spin”.

The austerity movement has damaged recovery from the economic depression, whilst it has also caused a crisis worldwide through its imposition upon many nations. The foundation research that was used to justify the austerity movement came from two Harvard Professors: Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff.  A University of Massachusetts student Thomas Herndon found that their work was filled with mathematical errors in their research spreadsheets.

Their spreadsheets were their “proofs” that economic austerity promotes economic recovery and were used to “verify” this theory. The powers that be have imposed this fundamentally flawed doctrine, and the ill-effects fall squarely upon 99% of the people, leaving the wealthiest unscathed.Thriving, actually.

It’s is both infuriating and horrific to witness the sheer suffering and destruction that follows in the wake of these now debunked theories. The unemployment in Europe  has reached record high levels high levels, Countries like Greece and Spain have widespread rioting in the streets and a new neo Nazi movement is gaining popularity throughout Europe.

The cost in human suffering is incalculable, but those fatuous academic asses supporting austerity are not concerned with people, they are concerned with their reputations and salaries, and with catering for the powerful wealthy. Their theories, rather than being based on informed facts, the result of real research and learning experiences, are NOT science: they are nothing more than by-products of overweening egotism in tandem with uncaring self interest. Such highly prized Tory values.

It gets worse. Huffington Post contributor: Mark Gongloff wrote this article : “Austerity Fanatics Won’t Let Mere Economics Stop Them From Thinking They’re Winning”, in it he writes: Like Hiroo Onoda, the Japanese soldier who hid on an island in the Philippines for 30 years refusing to believe Japan had lost World War II, austerity fanatics are never going to admit their failure. Instead, they are going to keep pushing the policies that are making millions of people in Europe miserable”.

Another example of their denial is a piece by Michael Rosen of the American Enterprise Institute, a Conservative think tank, entitled Austerity And Its Discontents”. He declares that, far from being shamed by the recent discovery of errors in influential research by Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, austerity fans have recently gained “the upper hand in the global argument over austerity”.

We really do need to shout down the public’s passive acceptance of grotesque inequality, social injustice, political justifications for intentionally inflicted and growing poverty and the steady removal of our civil rights. This is now the propaganda of a so-called liberal democracy.

Sure, many news articles circumvent the conspicuous propaganda of pernicious sophist, Conservative policies – manifestations of their socioeconomic Darwinist neoliberalist orthodoxy – which really makes the media complicit in such propaganda: diversions are a silent endorsement, after all.

The column of truth has holes in it, no matter which newspaper you read now.

There is a very conspicuous absence of counter agitprop, let alone any semblance of the grim truth. There is no representation of those with alternative principles, values and norms, the ones that challenge, with the potential to trigger much needed cultural changes. Public attitudes are being micromanaged. Whatever happened to counter-culture? There’s no Beat Generation, only a ‘being beat’ one. And we, the blogging Bohemians, and other underground dissenters, seceded from the conventionalities of an increasingly right wing public.  

The wealthy one percent have their own problems, just not on par with ours. The ‘poor me’ rich have to face a modicum f Government regulation, taxes and those darned pesky workers who want fair wages and decent working conditions. The political solution has been to bring many of the 99% to a level slightly above starvation.

This ensures that they will work for any amount that helps them put some food on the table, to meet their basic survival needs. It necessitates that social welfare and support programs be destroyed so the plebs will have no choice but to seek shelter from material devastation at some exploitative, low paying job that keeps them just above subsistence. This adds to the profits of the 1%. The steady erosion of workers rights also a lowers the value of labour further, because there is now a large and pretty desperate, disposable reserve army of labour.

The pay and bonuses of bankers and the tax cuts for the very wealthiest have sunk our country into obscene levels of inequality. When banks receive money, they invest over 90% in assets like property, that does nothing for the economy. The rich benefit as the value of their assets rises, so 12% of the population now own half the country’s wealth.

Wide gaps in income levels, human rights violations, political corruption and authoritarianism. These conditions tend to happen together. Despite the emphasis and value that authoritarian regimes place on social conformity, and a reliance on passive mass acceptance, rather than popular support, history shows us that it cannot be maintained by repressive and coercive strategies.

In Britain, the minority are exceptionally well-housed, have gold-plated pensions, fine art, fine food, luxury yachts, a big say and shrinking taxes. Many of the rest of the population are fighting to survive. There is a chasm opening between them and the majority of society who are mostly in debt, suffering severely reduced welfare and tax benefits, unable to afford a home, increasingly forced to relocate away from their community, breaking kith and kinship bonds and ways of life, routines and many are being forced to travel for hours in order to pick up menial work for the rich to profit from.

Those in a run-down area lucky enough to own a flat pay eight times as much council tax proportionally as the very rich. That beggars belief, but its a social fact, one of many grim facts we are now facing, manifested directly from Tory class prejudice.

Edwardian levels of inequality led to the Great Depression. Austerity measures under Chancellor Hindenburg contributed to the rise of Nazism. The drop in household income in Japan between 1929 and 1931 led to a wave of assassinations of Government officials and bankers. Social policies after World War 2 turned the tables and brought peace, with inequality steadily dropping in Britain until recently. But inequality is now returning to pre-war levels.

In response to the atrocities committed during the War, the International Community sought to define the rights and freedoms necessary to secure the dignity and worth of each individual. Ratified by the United Kingdom, one of the first countries to do so, in 1951, those human rights originally established in the Universal Declaration have been steadily eroded since the Coalition gained Office. There’s a clear link between high levels of inequality and failure of Government’s to recognise human rights, and to implement them in policies.

Authoritarians view the rights of the individual, (including those considered to be human rights by the international community), as subject to the needs of the Government. Of course in democracies, Government’s are elected to represent and serve the needs of the population. Democracy is not only about elections. It is also about distributive and social justice.

The quality of the democratic process, including transparent and accountable Government and equality before the law, is critical. Façade democracy occurs when liberalisation measures are kept under tight rein by elites who fail to generate political inclusion. See Corporate power has turned Britain into a corrupt state  and also Huge gap between rich and poor in Britain is the same as Nigeria and worse than Ethiopia, UN report reveals.

In the UK, democracy is very clearly faltering. It’s time to be very worried.


Thanks to Robert Livingstone for his brilliant illustrations.


My academic background is in sociology, history and philosophy of science, social policy and social psychology. I tend towards critical (Marxist) Phenomenology when it comes to ontology and epistemology:  defining “social reality”. Experience is “evidence”.  Existence is fact, which precedes essence.

Max Weber’s principle of Verstehen  is a critical approach in all social sciences, and we can see the consequences of its absence in the cold, pseudo-positivist approach of the Coalition in the UK. Their policies clearly demonstrate that they lack the capacity to understand, or meaningfully “walk a mile in the shoes of another”. The Coalition treat the population of the UK as objects and not human subjects of their policies.

My own starting point is that regardless of any claim to value-freedom in social science, we cannot abdicate moral responsibility, and cannot justify moral indifference. We see this positive approach exemplified in our laws, human rights and democratic process. We are also seeing an erosion of this tendency to a globalisation of values, and inclusion of a recognition and account of the full range of human experiences in policy making. Indeed our policy has become an instrument of social exclusion and increasing minoritization.

We are being reduced to little more than economic statements here in the UK. We have a Government that tends to describe vulnerable social groups in terms of costs to the State, and responsibility is attributed to these social groups via media and State rhetoric, whilst those decision-makers actually responsible for the state of the economy have been exempted, legally and morally, and are hidden behind complex and diversionary scapegoating propaganda campaigns.

Sartre once said that oppressors oppress themselves as well as those they oppress. Freedom and autonomy are also reciprocal, and it’s only when we truly recognise our own liberty that we may necessarily acknowledge that of others. Conservatism has always been associated with a capacity to inhibit and control, and never liberate. We need to take responsibility for the Government that we have. In fact we must.

With regard to the philosophical issues raised regarding the physical sciences, to clarify, I believe that there is a mind-independent “reality”, that exists beyond the full grasp of our perception and conception of it: in this respect I am a transcendental realist. My point is that how we choose to perceive reality is very much our own business, and demonstrating a correspondence with reality and our description of it is very problematic. Wittgenstein once said that any attempt to demonstrate such correspondence by theory leads to an infinite regress of descriptions of descriptions of descriptions…

Although it’s fallible, the scientific method is pretty much all we have in terms of validation. My own sidestep criterion for the problems raised with methodology is to recognise the role that values play in determining “facts”, and take responsibility for those values. Identify and declare your interest in an area of research. Although we may have difficulty in proving something to be an ultimate truth, we may at least explore issues and give an increasingly coherent account of them. See Coherence theory of truth

It’s not possible to do full justice to the debate about objectivity and relativism, deduction and induction here, so I’ve posted a couple of links for anyone interested in pursuing it further:

These are reasonable starting points: Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Social Science. 


Beastrabban has written an analysis of this article: Kittysjones on the Philosophical and Methodological Errors in the Tories’ Austerity Myth



I don’t make any money from my work. But if you like,  you can contribute by making a donation and help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.