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Neuroliberalism and Redefining Freedom

New forms of psychological governance may be challenging some liberal traditions

Redefining Freedom

In this post we continue our discussion of the psychological state by considering the implications of emerging forms of psychological governance for our understanding of freedom.

Psychological expressions of power (whether between counsellor and patient, or government and the people) have always had implications for established notions of freedom. In a therapeutic context, psychology has been associated with both enhanced forms of personal freedom, expressed through the ability to master psychoses and neuroses, and to be able to self-determine our life paths. In broader public terms, however, the wielding of psychological power by governments and corporations has long been associated with the loss of freedom: as corporate advertisers and government “psychocrats” shape the world around us without our consent or knowledge.

The contemporary rise of the behavioural sciences within government systems the world over challenges this neat division between freedom enhancing and freedom denying expressions of psychological power. In essence, modern psychological government does not so much increase or decrease personal freedom, it seeks to re-define what freedom actually is. We argue that this process of largely clandestine redefinition has significant implications for liberal societies and how we understand human agency.

Introducing neuroliberalism.

In order to commence our discussion of the relationship between psychological government and freedom, we find it helpful to introduce the concept of neuroliberalism. Engin Isin introduced the idea of neuroliberalism in 2004. For Isin, neuroliberalism is ‘[a] rationality of government that takes its subject as the neurotic citizen’ and involves an orchestrated attempt to ‘govern through neurosis.’ Although Isis argued that neoliberalism was primarily based on an attempt to government people through the exploitation of their anxiety, for us it represents something much broader: it represents the coming together of neoliberal systems of government with psychological expressions of power and influence.

Neoliberalism is a form of market-oriented governance, which uses market systems as a way of combining social stability (secured through the supply of affordable goods and services) with personal freedom. Advocates of neoliberalism claim that it is the only system of government in which freedom does not lead to socio-economic chaos, nor socio-economic stability derive from a loss of freedom. Neuroliberalism is, perhaps, best thought of a form of psychologically imbued offshoot of neoliberalism. It suggests ways to address some of the destabilising products of contemporary neoliberalism (climate change, escalating personal debt, observable declines in public health) while still preserving liberal freedoms.

In classic, liberal formulations of freedom some of these areas (particularly personal health) have been classified as illegitimate fields for government intervention. Conventional forms of liberalism see the role of the state as being limited only to acts that prevent one party “causing harm” (and by definition limiting the freedoms) of others. So while the contemporary state may have legitimate grounds to ban smoking in public space, liberalism would not sanction state intervention in relation to unhealthy eating practices (where the harm is more to self than others). Neuroliberalism challenges these liberal conventions by suggesting that it may not only be possible to intervene in the private decision-making of citizens without diminishing freedom, but that such forms of governmental intervention may be actually freedom enhancing. At the heart of emerging forms of neuroliberal government is the psychological insight that if left unassisted, humans make a range of irrational decisions, which have a detrimental impacts on their long-term welfare.

From externalities to internalities.

At the centre of the neuroliberal agenda is a desire to not only govern behavioural externalities, but also internalities. Externalities are a common economic concept. They refer to the cost free impacts of one party’s behaviour on an innocent third party. Governments have long regulated externalities (such as environmental pollution) because they are unjust and inhibit the freedoms of the affected parties. Internalities are, however, fundamentally different. They are the forms of harm that we unwittingly visit upon ourselves. Ultimately, internalities recognise the ways in which are all slaves to our selves, and the harmful habits we adopt.

States are becoming increasingly involved in the governing of internalities for two reasons. First, we now appreciate that many forms of internality (whether it be expressed in relation to the personal health or finance) are the product of the external contexts within which humans make decisions. From the supermarkets that encourage us to consumer more than we need, to the credit card companies who offers us such attractive lines of credit, internalities are seen now as not so much as the product of isolated bad decision-making, but of broader choice environments. Second, the insights of the behavioural sciences have illustrated the ways in which it may be possible to govern internalities without undermining personal freedom. In this context, neuroliberalism has seen the rise of a new government practices that focus less on regulation and statute and more on the restructuring of choice and the resetting of defaults.

Redefining Freedom

It is our contention that emerging attempts to govern internalities reflect an attempt to redefine how we understand freedom. At its heart, it suggest that dominant models of liberal freedom—which equate freedom largely with political subjects who are left as much to their own devices as much as possible—are flawed. Liberal formulations of freedom are seen to be flawed to the extent that they falsely believe that individuals have forms of behavioural autonomy and self-determination that they do not have (due to their own behavioural limitations and the choice environments with which they are surrounded).

In order to govern internalities, but still preserve personal freedom, system of neuroliberal government have adopted two distinctive policy technologies. The first concerns choice. The governing of choice operates in two ways. First, there has been active attempt to restructure the choice environments which people are presented with (from the placement of healthy foods in school canteens, to the relocation of alcoholic beverages and cigarettes in supermarkets). Second, has been a series of attempts to compel people to make an active choice: so called mandated choice. Mandated choice operates on the basis that people often do not take actions they actually want to simply because they never get round to them. A much-discussed example of this is organ donation. While many people state they would like to donate their organs and tissues after death, they actually never join organ donation registers. In certain countries mandated choice is now used to actively promote organ donation. In Wales, for example, when people renew their driving license they have to make a choice as to whether they want to join the UK’s Organ Donor Register to not.

The second policy technology that is routinely deployed within neuroliberal systems of government is the default. Defaults are powerful behavioural tools. A default essentially sets the standard of what will happen if no action is taken. Behavioural studies show that once a default is set, it is much more likely they the behavioural pattern it determines will be the one taken, even when affected parties can easily re-set the default. The most common form of behavioural default is the “opt-out” approach. The opt-out default works on the basis that defaults are set to support what are believed to be behaviours that will benefit individuals, while the affected parties retain the right to opt-out. A common example of the opt-out default it provided by company pension schemes. In the UK, the default position now sees employees automatically enrolled on many company pension schemes.

While laudable in their intent, these new forms of psychological government should give us pause for thought when it comes to questions of freedom. Care must be taken not to simply equate choice with freedom. As Salecl, has argued the modern penchant for the proliferation of choice can be a force of imposition as much liberation (2008). It is also important to acknowledge that mandating choice is not freedom—freedom would surely be defined as the ability to not have to make a choice should you so wish. The re-setting of defaults raises further issues in relation to freedom. While it is clear that defaults have to be set in one way or another, the freedom to opt-out of a system is clearly of a lower order than that associated with the active decision to participate in something. In this sense, defaults subtly loosen the connection between freedom and the processes of affirmative decision-making. While an active decision can, of course, be taken to opt-out of a pension scheme, there is clearly an assumption that only limited numbers of people will take this option. On these terms, defaults become a way of governing through assumed inaction.

While generally support many of the policy initiatives that are emerging as part of neuroliberal forms of government, we do feel that they are associated with a rather hollow vision of human agency and freedom. On these terms we believe that it is important to think about the ways in which the insights of the behavioural sciences can be used to promote more active forms of citizen and enhance, rather diminish, our collective freedoms.

Isin, E. (2004) ‘The neurotic citizen’ Citizenship Studies 8: 217-235.

Salecl, R. (2010) The Tyranny of Choice (Profile Books)

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