Choice is the essence of modern democracy. But do we have as much as we imagine? Can more choice mean less? David Lipsey assesses the costs and limits of choice in consumption and welfareby David Lipsey / January 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
At any time, in any culture there are some beliefs which are simply beyond challenge. In our own time, in our own culture, one such is the supremacy of individual choice.
The concept is woven into the fabric of political discourse. It underlies the universal acceptance, by all serious parties, of market forces. It marks taboo areas into which none dare stray: choice in health (the right to buy your way out of the public sector); choice in education (ditto for schools); choice in consumption (no more tax-and-spend). It is an unexamined article of faith.
That it should be so is not surprising. The ability to choose is an important distinction between humankind and the animal kingdom. Choice is the essence of democracy and the absence of choice is synonymous with dictatorship. Individual choice was central to the Renaissance, although in those days material choice was not its most important aspect. There are lots of things we like about choice: control, freedom, autonomy. Political movements which seek to eliminate choice, as certain Muslim fundamentalist movements do, send a frisson of horror down our spines.
Although Prospect is a liberal organ, it would be trying even its boundaries to seek to argue that choice is a bad thing. It is not. However, you can have too much even of a good thing. I will argue that there are significant costs and limits to choice which are often underestimated and that real choice cannot be reduced to a set of atomised individual choices.
The first drawback of choice is that it is expensive and time consuming. Meaningful choice has to be based on information. There is of course free information, such as advertising, but it takes time to absorb and has the obvious disadvantage that it is designed to influence choice, not to aid it. If you want impartial information, you have to buy it. Then, once you have bought it, you have to read it. You sit down with Which? when you would rather be reading Trollope. The more choices we have, the more time we have to spend making the right ones.
Some people enjoy choosing. They get a buzz out of the individual autonomy which it offers. Other people hate choosing, but they have no choice but to choose. But even for those who enjoy it, not all choices are equally pleasant. Think, for example, of buying a pension. As more and more people cannot rely on state or company pensions, so they will have to buy one for themselves, privately. To most people, this is a stressful business. It is a curious kind of person who enjoys the literature of pension and life assurance companies.
There is also the question of the way choice now can actually mean less choice later. Take the example of a child learning the piano. Few children will master the instrument without at least once wanting to give it up. But if they do give up, it will be harder or impossible to learn later. Wise parents will often force their children into one course of action in order that they may have greater choice later.
Moreover, the actual choices which we are able to make are not as wide as we may like to think. We can only choose, as individuals, between those choices with which we are presented. Our ability to choose collectively is much more circumscribed. Take an example from the world of transport. We can choose whether to own a car or a bike. We can choose, for each particular journey, whether to use that car or that bike or (assuming its availability) public transport. For each we are confronted with an array of costs and benefits both financial and in terms of the time and comfort our journey may take. We can compare these and make the choice which maximises our net benefit.
However, there are choices which we are not able to make as individuals. In theory, our society might look at all the external costs imposed on others by those who drive, and decide to ban the car altogether. If it did, public transport would be cheaper and better than it is, although there would undoubtedly be a loss of freedom for many.
Again in theory, we could decide to run society in such a way as to travel less. We could tax or ban holi-days away from home. This would involve a loss of liberty-but that is not the point. As individuals, we do not have an option of considering it. Our freedom of choice may appear absolute. In fact it is strictly limited.
Take another example: television. Each year there are more channels, and hence more choice. Soon Britain will be like New York with a channel for every individual’s interests. But there is a cost to this greater choice. Revenues, although they will increase, will not increase infinitely. In all probability, each channel will spend less on programmes than the big channels do now, and this may mean a lower quality of programmes. But as individuals, viewers cannot opt to return to the good old days when they had a limited choice of better programmes.
Some would say that this ar-gument is wrong. We live in a democracy. If enough people want a certain change which can only be imposed collectively, they will demand it of their politicians and it will be imposed collectively. Policing is an example of such a good.
But in reality, democracy is not good at big changes. To bring them about requires all sorts of conditions to be met; for people to be prepared to campaign for it, for powerful vested interests in the status quo to be overcome and so on.
In theory, a collective choice which limits and gets the better of individual choice may be possible. It even sometimes happens in practice. An example is the collective decision in Britain after the second world war to introduce the welfare state. But this does not happen often. Reality will continue largely to consist of individual choice exercised in a limited framework.
Even choices that can be made within that framework are often much narrower than we realise. In economic theory, people have a choice of how hard and long to work. They will continue to increase their hours until their marginal wage for the marginal hour equates to the value to them of the cost in foregone leisure.
But for most of us, most of the time, this is a wholly theoretical choice. If you want to do the more attractive jobs-in journalism, commerce or the professions-you have almost no control over your hours. Unless you put the time in, your job will go to someone who will. Even the recent European legislation limiting the working week makes an exception of managers. Hence the dilemma of the modern middle class, which knows that it will go to its deathbed wishing it had spent less time working but is powerless to do anything about it.
You have even less choice at the bottom of the heap. You are lucky to have a job at all. The boss decides your hours, subject only to such limits as the authorities may place upon him and enforce. Your only choice is whether to obey, knowing that not to will mean the sack. The sack will mean, at best, subsistence on state benefits and, in the age of workfare, at worst nothing at all. Some choice!
In reality, the more important choices we make cannot be regarded as truly individual. Each person’s choice impacts on another person’s choice. As we have to make our choices in ignorance of those impacts, they will not necessarily maximise social advantage.
Take education. Choice in education is the Tory watchword, behind which Tony Blair and David Blunkett limp uncomfortably. Neither dares say that choice in education cannot deliver what it promises.
Suppose you have two schools, a good school and a bad school. Every parent will want their child to go to the good school. It follows that half of them will be denied their choice.
But matters are worse than that. Suppose that the basis of deciding who gains and who loses is selection on ability. The good school will get the best pupils, the bad school the worse ones, and that means that it will almost certainly get even worse.
Imagine a Rawlsian state of ignorance in education. Imagine, that is, you were designing an education system for a world in which you had no idea whether your child would be bright or not.
Parents might then opt to take their chance and go for selection even at the risk of finding their child in an intolerable school. However, it seems more likely that they would not. They would prefer the decision as to which child went where to be taken randomly, or according to some other criterion such as physical proximity.
There would still be a chance of their child ending up in a bad school. But at least the bad school would not be as bad as it would be under selection. A low chance of a very bad education might be seen as worthwhile, even if it meant a low chance, too, of a very good education.
Back to the actual world in which we live. Under selection, the parents of brighter children have a choice. The parents of less bright children do not. And because the parents of brighter children have a choice, the schools to which the less bright children go will be less good than they would otherwise be.
There are counter-arguments, but choice in schooling is not always a good thing. The same goes for the welfare state more generally. It seems likely, on present trends, that universal provision will be whittled away. People will have less and less choice but to choose to provide for themselves. And because most people will have that choice, they will no longer have a vested interest in those who do not-the poor. It can be predicted with some certainty that provision for the worst off will deteriorate, at least in relative terms.
This problem could be avoided if people made a collective choice to avoid it, and to continue to pay the taxes to fund a large welfare state. I do not know if that is the choice they would make because they are not being offered it. Both political parties in Britain are promising not to be big taxers and therefore not to be big spenders-this despite the fact that opinion polls show that most people favour higher taxes to pay for better public services. The choice between a relatively low spending and a relatively high spending state is arguably the most important that politics should provide. It no longer does.
People today have more choice than their parents, and far more than their parents before them. It is hard to judge at what point the benefits of greater choice in terms of liberty and self-expression are outweighed by the costs. In the field of consumer expenditure, most people would resent a reduction in their present range of choice, although it is a moot point whether they would like much more of it. In other fields, such as education, health and welfare it is at least plausible that choice has gone too far. A government that dared to reduce it-and which could find a language to explain to voters why-might even find that it had chosen a winning policy.