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Professor of Geography at Aberystwyth University

Harm, Freedom and Behavioural Public Policy

I am currently working on a project that is exploring changing practices and perceptions of freedom. The hypothesis of the research is that smart tech, the insights of the behavioural sciences, the emergence of big data and algorithmic government, and the rise of Behavioural Public Policy are coming together to redefine the norms of freedom within liberal societies. The project speculates that despite the potential significance of these developments changing practices and perceptions of freedom are emerging in fairly tacit and unacknowledged ways. In the early stages of reading, I have been reminded  of how discussions of freedom are inextricably connected to notions of harm. If freedom is a normatively desired state within liberal society, its diminution tends to only be warranted when its loss prevents other forms of harm. Reading around themes of freedom, harm and governance opens-up a bewildering array of perspectives, which demarcate radically different perspectives on human nature, the role of government in society, and the nature of social interactions.

The political theorist John Dunn offers a helpful diagrammatic way of expressing the concerns that different political traditions have regarding the relationships between harm and freedom[1]. According to Dunn, when you compare anarchist (you could add libertarians to this group on certain grounds) and liberal democratic thinking it is possible to discern divergent anxieties with regard to the vertical and horizontal determinants of harm and freedom. Anarchists are primarily concerned with the harm that can be waged by states, governments, and related hierarchical systems of social organisation (vertical power), but assume that it is possible to establish fairly harmonious relations among people (in the horizontal sphere of interpersonal social relations). Key thinkers within the liberal democratic tradition (such as Rousseau, and we could include Hobbes here, though not as a liberal democratic thinker) are more concerned with the harm that can be done to individuals by others in (the horizontal realm of) civil society. The liberal democratic tradition thus sees hierarchical forms of (vertical) power as potentially benevolent forces whose operation can protect us from each other and enable us to secure freedom.


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Table 1. Dunn’s Diagram of Power.

Dunn’s depiction of different political perceptions of power and harm led me to ponder where contemporary forms of Behavioural Public Policy fit in to his diagram. For those who are unfamiliar with Behavioural Public Public policy, it is an approach to policy-making that uses emerging psychological insights regarding human behaviour (particularly concerning bounded rationality and willpower) to inform the processes of government. Crucially, it seeks to shape/nudge human conduct in subtle ways, without undermining personal liberty and freedom. There are four things of particular note when thinking about Behavioural Public Policy in relation vertical and horizontal concerns of power and freedom:

  1. Vertical Power 1, libertarian resonance: Perhaps due to the concerns that have been expressed about their insidious manipulative potential, Behavioural Public Policies share anarchist and libertarian concerns with the potential harm to personal freedom that could emerge from the application of psychological power from hierarchical agents. Rather than being a barrier to the implementation of governmental interventions, however,  concerns with vertical oppression are addressed directly within Behavioural Public Policy through a preference for softer forms of paternalism and the preservation of choice within policy systems. Here then is a suggestion that so long as vertical power if easy to resist, or can facilitate choices (and in particular opt-out options), it may be possible to enact an expanded terrain for governmental interventions within daily life, which prevents various forms of public harm without eroding freedom.
  2. Vertical Power 2, extended liberal democratic state mandate: In many ways Behavioural Public Policy embodies an extended version of the liberal democratic vision of the exercise of vertical power. The liberal democratic tradition sees value in vertical power because it can be exercised to prevent individuals causing harm-to-others. Behavioural Public Policy—armed with smarter, choice-oriented forms of interventions—suggests that it may also be possible to use vertical power to prevent harm-to-self while still preserving personal freedom.
  3. Horizontal Power I, libertarian limitations: Behavioural Public Policy tends to take a more pessimistic view on the emerging forms of horizontal (inter-social) power-relations than either anarchist or libertarian thought. Anarchists suggest that in the absence of hierarchical domination harmonious social relations of mutuality can emerge. Libertarians argue that the pursuit of self-interest (within market systems), can see a mutually assured balancing of stability and freedom within civil society. Contra libertarian perspectives, Behavioural Public Policy suggests that the unregulated behaviour of individuals tends to result in both harm-to-self and harm-to-others (as witnessed most starkly in the crises of personal and global finance associated with the great recession). Furthermore, while Behavioural Public Policy acknowledges the importance of social life (as emphasized in the anarchist tradition), it suggests that social mimicry, and herd actions, can often exacerbate the harms caused by unregulated individual behaviours.
  4. Horizontal Power II, further extending the liberal democratic state mandate: Behavioural Public Policy extends the liberal democratic register of concern with harm in the horizontal realm. This is because related policies recognise the role that governments can play not only in legitimately regulating harm-to-self (which is largely a concern in the vertical realm), but also in acknowledging how harm-to-self actions (such as obesity or personal debt defaults) can rapidly be translated into harm-to-others issues (expressed in relation to the increased cost of medical insurance and public funding for health care, or unfavourable interests rates for mortgages and personal loans).


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Table 2. Behavioural Public Policy in Dunn’s framework.

Thinking about Behavioural Public Policy through Dunn’s framework suggests that related policies reflect a potentially significant affirmation, and extension, of liberal democratic norms concerning the regulation of harm and the constitution of freedom. At the same time, Behavioural Public Policy also reflects a partial rejection of certain anarchist and libertarian assumptions concerning the nature of liberty and sources of social and political harm.

Of course, thinking about emerging forms of behavioural government through Dunn’s framework does not exhaust the ways it is possible to theorise harm and freedom. What is does suggest is that changes are emerging concerning how we may think about freedom, harm and the relationship between states and civil society. While still relatively nascent in form, these are developments that may be more significant to the future of liberal democratic societies than either advocates or opponents of Behavioural Public Policy currently acknowledge.


[1]While Dunn’s ideas are expressed in his chapter ‘Situating Democratic Political Accountability’ in Przeworski Stokes and Manin’s edited collection Democratic Accountability and Representation (1999) Cambridge University Press: 329-44, I became aware of these ideas while reading Clive Barnett’s more recent critical theoretic analysis of democracy The Priority of Injustice: Locating Democracy in Critical Theory (2017) University of Georgia Press: 35-36.


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