Friday, 17 October 2008

Social engineering

What is the difference between 'educating' the public and 'social engineering'? As far as I can tell, it's this: 'education' is the benign thing that 'we' do, but 'social engineering' is the sinister thing that our political opponents are aiming for. The next time I hear some glib comment about the 'nanny state' telling us what's good for us, I will scream. This phrase is used by people who have no problem trying to influence the behaviour of others. They just disagree about how it should be done, and in what direction.

Everyone supports 'social engineering', although they may call it by different names (like 'raising awareness'), and propose using it to achieve different things. Social engineering means trying to change the views and/or behaviour of the general public. Most of us have beliefs we feel the public should share. Most of us feel, for example, that the public should generally be opposed to domestic violence. Many of us feel that the health risks of smoking should be well known. Some (and I refer to here to our THM survey of political candidates) think that working mums should be facilitated to breastfeed by 'education' about biological realities. The state has a role to play in all these 'social engineering' endeavours. Only the most libertarian right thinks that any crazy thing an individual might want believe is OK, and their own business. To most of us, a society without some shared knowledge and values - where being racist or homophobic, for example, are just personal preferences - doesn't look like a good thing.

As I see it, the question to ask is not whether 'social engineering' is desirable. Whether or not you call it by that name, it's a part of life in a society. I for one don't have a problem with the state pointing out to me that it's better to wear a seatbelt than suffer a debilitating injury. I don't have a problem with the state making me wear a seatbelt for my own good, either. Surely there are two more relevant questions to ask:

1) What values or information do we, as a society, want the state to promote?
2) What form of 'social engineering' is the right one for the task? For example, will educating people on how to avoid diabetes do the trick? Do we also need to regulate the way manufacturers of unhealthy food market themselves to children? Do we need the government to intervene in the market so that healthy food becomes more affordable? Do we need to look at the way the health system provides for people with diabetes?

There are a range of options. All of them are forms of social engineering. All of them are better than saying, 'If you want to get diabetes, go blind and have your feet amputated, that's your personal choice'. That's just dumb.

This election, like any other, isn't a choice between a social engineering nanny state and freedom. It's about choosing what kind of engineer we'd like.


Hugh said...

This post is confusing to me. You say 'social engineering' and 'education' are interchangeable, but you list forcing people to wear seatbelts as an example of social engineering. Forcing people to do something can't be spun as education, no matter how charitably you regard it.

Anna said...

I don't mind the state following up education with compulsion. My personal opinion. That's all the seatbelt point was supposed to say.

Hugh said...

There are some people, and sometimes I'm one of them, who feel that compulsion is acceptable, but education isn't. That anything that is not explicitly forbidden should be permitted, and that if something isn't sufficiently threatening to the community as a whole to be banned, the state shouldn't have a role. The continuum is not universal.

I've often thought about this issue because, as you've pointed out, calls for education, awareness campaigns and so on are almost universal across the entire political spectrum. It's my opinion that these calls are often making massive presumptions about the effectiveness of such campaigns. I feel that anybody who changes their opinion based on a government campaign probably didn't hold it very strongly in the first place. A good example is Du Plessis' ideas on breastfeeding - it's patronising to assume that women's breastfeeding activity is based on lack of awareness.

In other words, when you launch an education campaign, you are by implication accusing everybody who disagrees with you of being at best ignorant on important matters.

Sometimes I feel that people calling for education campaigns not out of a genuine desire to resolve issues but out of a more basic need to 'get people on their side'. If I'm arguing with somebody and one of my friends steps in to back me up, I may not win the argument, but I'll feel better about my position. If the government steps in to back me up, perhaps I'll feel better too?

To look at it another way, it seems a bit odd to me that, in the liberal/capitalist/nationalist democracy we live in, the government is supposed to be a product of people's opinions, and yet governments, in office, spend a lot of time trying to get people to change their opinions. It seems a bit off, in the same way it would seem off if the police spent a lot of time campaigning to get laws changed.