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…