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.