The “Choice” Mantra

Written By: - Date published: 2:47 pm, December 16th, 2010 - 35 comments
Categories: uncategorized - Tags: ,

Nick C, in my Government Spending Ideology post, had an interesting comment about the right’s perspective on such things.  In it, he said:

“[T]he reason that those on ‘the right’ generally call for lower government spending and lower taxes is that we believe we get more choice when recieving[sic] services from the market.”

I see a great misnomer in the concept of “choice”, which is popular with many politicians (it was certainly the mantra from both parties in their 2005 election when I was in the UK).  Choice often doesn’t gain us anything.

I don’t want a “choice” of schools, I want my local one to be the best possible. I don’t need it to be better than my neighbours – I want every New Zealander to have the best possible education. Partly that’s altruistic, but even if every bone of my body is selfish, I’ll do better if I’m in a highly educated society of achievers.

I don’t want a “choice” of doctor, or hospital, or even medical treatment. I’m not in a position to choose who or what’s best, so I just want the highest quality we can achieve and afford (cost being a particular issue with modern health care). I don’t see I deserve better than anyone else, so I don’t see that I should get a choice that disadvantages someone else.

I don’t want a “choice” in my national infrastructure either. I don’t need 2 roads / sets of rails / lines of fibre between me and everyone I might want to be in contact with. I don’t see any second option as helping me at all, it’s just consuming the nation’s resources.

I don’t want a “choice” in my ACC entitlement, or welfare benefits – I just want the community, through the government to support me when circumstances move against me; help me back on my feet.

In a lot of these things “choice” merely equates to me getting something better at someone else’s loss. Which equates to those with the wealth and education getting the best choices, which quickly evolves into a privileged class and an underclass1 caught into a poverty trap.

I’d rather no “choice” and a focus on getting everywhere the best we can, particularly on those basic services that everyone should have.

(I’m quite happy to have choice on my washing powder though, although I’m not sure that does me any good either – I don’t really know which one works best for my buck, and they all claim top-billing…)

1 [ Remember John Key’s “underclass” he was going to help?  They’re poorer now. ]

35 comments on “The “Choice” Mantra”

  1. Bored 1

    Good work Bunji, I have for so long been puzzled about the ideological obsession with choice. In business and my personal life I often buy on the basis of utility, fit for purpose and appropriateness for what ever parameter is needed. in a material sense our choices are mind bogglingly broad for what is really required.

    In the case of services I buy for specific needs which in the case of social needs such as educaation are normally easy to define and scope. As you note, social services dont require choice, they require delivery within set parameters. I dont buy, I use, I dont purchase directly, I pay tax to socialise the cost. I expect a uniform output for me and everybody else. Every time we put choice into this equation up goes the price and down goes delivery except at exponential price for those who can afford. That is economic madness, highly innefficient.

  2. Got money?
    You deserve the best.
    They can have the rest.
    Choice!

  3. Carol 3

    The right wing “choice” mantra has become a way for getting people to hand over more money, now that most people in developed countries can get everyting they need at an affordable price. Ater WWII manufacturing became increasingly more efficient, so it became possible for most people, in contries like NZ, to buy a washing machine, a car, a TV etc, etc. So how to get them to spend more money? Businesses started to produce more customised products – and with these, through brandimg they attached a sense of identity (often status-linked) to the array of “choices” in the market.

    But some people have become addicted to such choices, so they need to keep spending and spending on each new gismo. In the end, this is a limited choice. What about the choice not to spend? and not to get sucked into the status symbols attached to many of the consumer choices?

    Also, the range of choice is limited. I have little say in what’s produced as consumer “choices”. The wealthy, who can spend most money, have most influence on what’s produced. I’m like bored, I just want to buy things that are useful to me. Sometimes I end up making things out of the bits that are on offer, because no one is making an item I want to use.

    • Tiger Mountain 3.1

      As well as promoting ‘commodity fetishism’ and boxing day sales, lets buy it! choice is used as a deliberate ideological tactic to discourage collective behaviour and thinking. It’s all about ME, I choose not to join a nasty union and organise to get wage increases off bosses, I (ME) choose to sign up for Working For Families and get cash off the money go round from other taxpayers.

      At some level of course people should be able to have an orange one instead of a silver one if they so desire, but it is madness to claim for example that choice exists in any form other than an artificial one in power generation and supply fer crissakes, a most obvious case for no choice required.

      The concept of ‘choice’ is also essential to cultivating new aspirational, yet struggling, tory voters. Advertising is sometimes hilarious particularly the banking and insurance industry pompously peddling their ‘products’, “we understand you, a custom package just for you” (and the other several million kiwis that are required to have bank accounts).

  4. Bright Red 4

    choice can make you poorer if you’re choosing between essentially identical products that will give you basically the same level of happiness because making a choice is a cost.

    compounding this many businesses that are offering the same product intentionally offer a range of differing plans to make comparison hard so that you’re less likely to swtich providers. Adam Scott, author of Dilbert invented the time for this market tactic – confusopoly http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=confusopoly

    small businesses don’t want ‘choice’ in ACC because that would be an extra cost in deciding between the slew of plans that will be offered for trivial gains (if any, once they pay for the insurers’ marketers, lawyers, and profits).

    Likewise, I don’t want to go to the supermarket and be confronted with 50 brands and types of toothpaste – I just want a super toothpaste but instead of offering that the supplies try to confuse and segment the market, which means I have to spend time choosing.

  5. Jim Nald 5

    Yup. Good points.
    There is also the issue of ‘false choices’ that we must be vigilant in detecting and rejecting.

  6. Carol 6

    And when it suits them, the corporate and political powers that champion market “choice”, limit our choices:

    http://www.stuff.co.nz/business/money/4461413/Raging-against-credit-card-politics

    I am labouring with futile anger towards my chosen credit card company. Why am I seething? Because Visa chose to limit my political freedom by blocking me from sending a contribution to the Wikileaks fighting fund.

    • Draco T Bastard 6.1

      Of course they do – the only choice that most people are allowed to make is the choice that benefits the few. I consider “choice” in many areas to be a way to hide the fact that you have no choice. Me being with Orcon for my ISP is such a non-choice as the service is still delivered over Telecom’s network.

  7. Olwyn 7

    The right-wing emphasis on choice comes from wanting us to treat freedom and consumer choice as if they were the same thing. Never mind if the SIS is allowed to spy on you as they see fit, there are 30 brands of cereal in aisle five from which to pick your breakfast of choice. In fact the SIS must be permitted to spy on you if we are to preserve our precious freedom in the field of breakfast.

  8. Dave Christian 8

    Thank you for this post. It explains a great deal.

    I don’t want choice to get something better than others do. I want choice so that everyone can have the best possible.

    With choice, suppliers of goods and services are motivated to provided the best possible quality/value in order to avoid losing customers to competitors.

    Without choice, quality/value declines over time because monopoly suppliers have different incentives. Monopoly suppliers inevitably devote significant resources to telling everyone what a great job they are doing. Observers have no way of telling for sure if their claims are true or false. Government backed claims have a ring of authority. Tellingly, monopoly suppliers always claim that introduction of choice would be a disaster; By which they mean that it would be a disaster for them.

    Of course, people with spare money (not a large group, but there are some) will spend extra to get better services, but those without wealth (the majority) will also get higher quality services with choice. The quality/value of your washing power has improved much more over the past 50 years than the quality/value of any government monopoly service.

    • Bright Red 8.1

      “The quality/value of your washing power has improved much more over the past 50 years than the quality/value of any government monopoly service.”

      evidence?

      In 1960 you couldn’t get most of the routine medicial treatments that the public health system delivers today.

    • Bunji 8.2

      “With choice, suppliers of goods and services are motivated to provided the best possible quality/value in order to avoid losing customers to competitors.”
      I don’t think many teachers or doctors think in such terms.

      “Monopoly suppliers inevitably devote significant resources to telling everyone what a great job they are doing.”
      In fact the neo-liberal economies of NZ and US spend the highest proportion of their GDPs on advertising. It is with choice that people need to spend lots to convince others that their product is “the best”. However they often work by a confusopoly, so people can never know which is truly the best – witness Teresa Gatung’s comments.

      But I’m not against all choice. Where people regularly buy something that they can tell what works for them it is a powerful tool for improvement. Often the inefficiency of building 2 of everything overrules any usefulness of competition. I certainly wouldn’t want a monopoly in private hands (ie not a public trust/mutual or co-operative or govt-owned) – without a community-based ethic there will always be rorting; but with a community based spirit a monopoly can be to the benefit of all.

      Washing powder has improved massively over the last 50 years. I’m not sure the quality of my milk or sandwiches has improved anything like the quality of my teaching, hospital care or policing over the last 50 years however – they’ve all improved hugely too.

    • Draco T Bastard 8.3

      I don’t want choice to get something better than others do. I want choice so that everyone can have the best possible.

      But choice doesn’t actually give you that – research and development does. So, if we want the best washing powder we get the researchers to develop it and then a factory to make it. The researchers keep researching and, as their research produces results, the factory is updated to make the new improved version.

      This option has a number of efficiency benefits: No waste produced by advertising, the best researchers are going to be working together sharing information so that research isn’t duplicated and all the ideas are going to be heard and investigated (bringing in “competition”). You get the best washing powder at the best price.

  9. Richard 9

    I’ve sometimes seen right wing people offer things like Food Courts as “progressive” and “modern” examples of “choice”; as in you can choose whether to eat a burger, or sushi, or a kebab, or a curry, or a roast.

    Which does not really equate to choice in a meaningful sense.

    • Luxated 9.1

      I hope that isn’t the best example of choice they can think of. Because I’m not sure a choice between several different flavours of food poisoning is quite what I look for at lunchtime.

      captcha: best, hardly!

  10. A 10

    Bunji, you’re missing or understating the central argument for restricting choice, which is that in certain cases a system of free choice leads to outcomes that are collectively self defeating for the choosers.

    For example, if the military were funded via a system of choice, the rational thing for self interested people to do would be to refuse to pay, because you still get the benefit if others pay, and are no worse off if they don’t. So hardly anyone pays and we all end up worse off. Compulsory taxation stops us falling in to such collective action problems.

    The great mistake of the political right, and the reason why they are more or less hopelessly deluded, is that they do not understand that universal individual wants do not necessary ensure provision of universally desired goods. It’s why I cringe every time I hear some halfwit say something like “why do we need tax when everyone can just pay for whatever they want?”.

    As an obvious example, education is funded via compulsory taxation because it has significant externalities such as the burden that individual illiteracy places on the rest of society. Most of the big ticket items for the welfare state are either like education, or are forms of insurance, which also suffer from market failure.

    Anyone who doesn’t understand this simple idea has no business trying to talk politics. Unfortunately, that includes most people of a politically conservative persuasion. If they all shoved off and found something else to do, it would be possible to have meaningful public discussion of political problems, and perhaps actually get somewhere. As it is, the tragedy of human politics is that the rest of us spend most of our time trying to deal with these apes and their ridiculous notions.

    • Bunji 10.1

      Very good points. Yes, I definitely missed putting that part of argument in there – thanks for picking that up.

    • Descendant Of Smith 10.2

      More recently the earthquake in Christchurch showed how strongly choice can work or not work. I feel for the old people who having paid insurance all their lives and never claimed stopped paying their house insurance premiums because they were struggling financially.

      I’ve seen the same happen to old people with medical insurance as well – they’ve paid for many years but can’t afford it when their health deteriorates and they actually need it. There’s no thanks from Southern Cross and their ilk for all the premiums they have paid over the years.

      In fact medical insurance is a pretty good example of where choice is very limited – mainly because the private sector only does those things it can make money from.

      I’ve yet to see the person who goes to a private hospital when they have their stroke, or their heart attack or their serious car accident. I’ve seen a few people at Middlemore having their botched cosmetic surgery sorted out though.

      I have a son with a spontaneous genetic disorder. His choice of medical insurance is nil. I even tested out an insurance broker to see if any company in Australasia would insurance him – not a single one.

      Part of the choice of the private sector is to deny their services to people. That’s no choice at all for the person needing the service.

      • Vicky32 10.2.1

        AFAIK, private hospitals don’t do emergency surgeries! (Not cost effective). My youngest and cleverest is a nurse at the Cardiothoracic unit in Welly.)
        Heart attack victims are all happy to go public – they don’t want or need a choice, neither do they (thankfuly) need insurance!
        Deb

  11. For me this is another conundrum. I agree wholeheartedly with the post. But at the same time, the alternative vision it offers never comes to pass. So what’s a viable third way?

    Throw more and more money at hospitals and roads etc till they become “better”? That then devolves to an argument about what proportion of that money gets taken from the “rich” in taxes versus what gets taken from the poor in benefits cuts etc.

    There’s no doubt a boost in funding would help some aspects of Bunji’s utopia to come to pass but there’s a whole host of other, non-monetary factors that are also standing in the way.

    I’m loathe to bring up an example lest the thread derail into debating its validity but if we’re talking quality schooling then – speaking as a former Board chair and then teachers’ union spin doctor – one of the biggest problems is the lack of reward for excellent teachers and the die-in-a-ditch union attitude to the protection of lousy ones.

    People get sick of the dysfunction in the public system – which is due to a web of vested interests, from politicians’ posturing for re-election right down to petty office politics at the customer service level – and give up, figuring they’ll just pay for a private provider, upon whom their “customer” status imposes some accountability.

    Yes, choice is often a false perception. But the demand for it needs to be addressed if we’re to stop the waste and duplication.

    And that’s going to require some major attitudinal shifts right across the board, and amongst some structures most resistant to change.

    • Descendant Of Smith 11.1

      Of course if businesses really wanted choice then consumers should be able to choose what they wish to pay for the goods being sold – each could then buy according to their means and needs.

      There’s a current software bundle doing this at moment:

      Total revenue: $659,924.29
      Number of purchases: 90,289
      Average purchase: $7-31
      Average Windows: $6-09
      Average Mac: $8-25
      Average Linux $13.71

      Top price paid to date is $2,000.

      I’ve noticed as the promotion has gone on the average continues to lift.

      I’ve paid well above the average cause I can afford to do so as have many others.

      So how bout it – give me some real choice.

      • I remember when I lived in the country just outside of Cambridge. Our neighbours would put a big hopper of fresh corn at the gate and an honesty box. I think they wanted 20c a cob or somesuch (this was the late 80s).

        The people who’d stop, grab bucketloads of the stuff and – if they were feeling especially generous – drop in a few silver coins, but mostly nothing, were always those in the late model cars. If an old jalopy pulled up, they’d always pay full price, or as close to it as they could afford – you’d see them hunting in the ashtrays for extra change.

        Nowadays I have a tradesman friend who says he’s happier working in lower socio-economic areas than the posh ones. The rich evidently agree a price and then, having had the work done, try to pick holes in the quality and/or want to pay in post-dated cheques and/or are mysteriously never home to pay at all, etc. The poor will either pay, or ask to pay in instalments, and actually do pay.

        That’s why I’m a little wary of anything that relies on good nature and honesty… it seems inversely proportional to wealth in many (though by no means all) people!

        [Perhaps geeks really are different to normal folk 😉 ]

    • A 11.2

      Here are some responses, Rex.

      To increase funding of the health care system is not the only way to improve it, but neither are attempts to increase efficiencies. Funding things like better pharmaceuticals, more equipment and more procedures will do much to increase social welfare by improving quality of life and lowering wait times. These things cost money. In fact, health care is probably the biggest bang that we get for our buck, since a well-funded health care system adds years to people’s lives and quality to those years. One only need look at the improvements in cancer treatments over the past 50 years to see how much has been accomplished. Whenever I hear someone complaining that health costs are ballooning, I can’t understand what the problem is. Of course they are ballooning, but the benefits are obviously worth it.

      As to where the money should come from, it is pretty obvious. Vast sums of money are spent on competitive consumption in New Zealand for very little gain in public welfare. Many people spend large amounts of their income on competitive consumption goods simply in an attempt to “keep up with the Joneses”. This is wasteful. A progressive income tax functions as a means of damping down this competition, and will thus be a boon to most New Zealanders.

      If people don’t want to pay the tax, then let them leave. I grow tired of hearing their whining, and would rather see them gone. Lord knows, New Zealand is close to the top of the human development index, so there aren’t that many places to go where things are genuinely better. There are enough hard working people who would like to immigrate to New Zealand to replace them.

      The simple problem with New Zealand teachers is that we pay peanuts, and we therefore get monkeys. Among all the groups of university students I have taught, the trainee teachers are without doubt the worst and the stupidest. You want better people, I’d offer much more money in exchange for completing competency assessments.

      But even then, New Zealand still has one of the best education systems in the world. Imagine what could be done with better teachers and more resources.

      As for the “resistant” problem, I think you are correct in that the parental demand for choice and accountability is driving the dysfunction, and I would argue that this is the main cause of the dysfunction and what is driving it is competitive consumption in education. I can’t really see that problem being solved any time soon, as the upper middle class more or less have a stranglehold on educational advantage in New Zealand (and much else besides), and those people get very authoritarian when they feel their social capital threatened. Their worst nightmare other than their hysterical fear of poverty is an education where their children must compete as equals with gifted working class kids.

  12. BLiP 12

    If choice is so good, why can’t I have a choice about whether or not to eat genetically engineered frankenstein food?

  13. Descendant Of Smith 13

    I might also add that if choice is so good why can’t food be labeled with country of origin so I can choose where my food comes from or why can’t my pork purchases clearly tell me whether they have been raised in sow crates? Why did those toys just recently pulled not have a label saying contains lead paint?

  14. Richard 14

    A commonly used argument in favour of choice and the free market is that it motivates producers to compete, creating efficiency. I think the opposite is true. All businesses strive to make money, and if you’re busy competing then you won’t make any money. Instead, all businesses try to create a monopoly for themselves (or at least do their best to avoid competition). Examples: power and insurance companies pricing plans avoid competition by making it hard to compare price. These might be examples of “market failure” but I think all businesses strive to operate in a failed market.

  15. Jenny 15

    You have money, you have the freedom of choice.

    You have no money, You have no freedom, You have no choice.

    You have no “choice”, but to become a wage slave of those who do have money, no matter how they got this money, they may be the worst criminals, or the most undeserving heirs of money.

    If you don’t like the conditions of your servitude, you might chose to join with others in the same situation to withhold your labour.

    The rich supporters of “choice” will then scream blue murder for the government to legislate against this particular “choice”.

    Calling on the police and sometimes even the army to suppress “choice”.

    On the other hand these rich supporters of “choice” vigourously fight to preserve and extend their freedom of “choice” to sack you at any time, and plunge your family into poverty, even for no reason at all in the first 90 days.

    To increase their power of “choice” over the rest of us, those with money sometimes choose to over-rule democracy itself. By removing everyone else’s right of choice, they increase their own.

    The ultimate dream of right wing pro “choice” hypocrites in ACT is:

    If you have no money, You get no choice, You get no Justice, And you have no voice.

  16. Nick C 16

    “I don’t want a “choice” of schools, I want my local one to be the best possible.”

    But what is the best school? There is no objective answer and we may want completely different schools for our kids. I might want a school that incorperates a component of religious education into the curriculum, you might not. I might want a school with an emphasis on arts, you might want one with an emphasis on academic achievement. I might want a Rudolf Steiner school, you might think that sucks. Choice is important because people do have different preferances. Some of the commenters above say that choice in markets is all illusionary and all products are basically the same. You’re entitled to that view but clearly most consumers see differently and vote with their wallets for a large variety of products.

    The other thing you cant ignore is that choice is a much better mechanism of providing accountability than voting. If you think National provides shit hospitals but good schools, and Labour is the reverse, what are you supposed to do? You only have one party vote and you have to give it to someone.

    • Jenny 16.1

      “Choice is important because people do have different preferances.”

      Nick C

      Translation: By “different preferences”, Nick of course means, different sized wallets.

      The other thing you cant ignore is that choice is a much better mechanism of providing accountability than voting.

      Nick C

      Translation: Nick C is making the sort of typical statement often mouthed by the extreme right. The extreme right parties like ACT, loathe democracy because it infringes on the power of money.
      Democracy allows people who don’t have money to have some of the political power, that usually only belongs to the rich and powerful. Democracy allows the rest of us to put a check on the choices of the rich and powerful as they negatively affect everyone else.

      • Nick C 16.1.1

        No, by different preferences i mean prefer different goods and services, activities, etc. Of course there is inequality but I think there are better means to address that than govt provision of services which strips choice, such as a guarenteed minimum income.

        • Jenny 16.1.1.1

          “…by different preferences i mean prefer different goods and services, activities, etc.”

          Nick C

          Nicksy You do a better job of translating yourself, than I do.

          All these different goods and services, activities, etc. to be available only at some schools and not at others, eh, Nick.

          Choice

          Well who wouldn’t want to send their children to these better schools?

          Oh I forgot, this sort of choice is only available to wealthy families. You, old right wing elitist you. How smug these parents will feel, having the power to exercise the sort of choice, denied to less well off parents.

          • Nick C 16.1.1.1.1

            Who do you think gets into the best schools at the moment Jenny? Do you think its the poor brown kids from South Auckland who get into Auckland Grammer? Do you think the kid who grew up in a gang home in Stathmore gets into Wellington College? Or is it the wealthy family who can buy an appartment in Parnel or Khandallah just to get into the right zone or both pay their income taxes and private school fees? Whats worse is that there is simply no way out for these kids. Even if their parents are willing to make huge financial sacrafises, they are quite literally imprisoned in their local school by the government.

            I want to give these kids a chance, you dont.

            • Jenny 16.1.1.1.1.1

              “Who do you think gets into the best schools at the moment Jenny? Do you think its the poor brown kids from South Auckland who get into Auckland Grammer? Do you think the kid who grew up in a gang home in Stathmore gets into Wellington College? Or is it the wealthy family who can buy an appartment in Parnel or Khandallah just to get into the right zone or both pay their income taxes and private school fees?”

              Nick C

              I don’t think I have misunderstood you on this Nick. All your talk about personal choice has been about ramping up the inequality that you so aptly describe.

              How does having schools with differing qualities and costs help those who don’t have the ability to meet these costs?

              You ignorantly claim, “…if their parents are willing to make huge financial sacrafises,” they could afford these schools.

              Like a lot of other rich and privileged people you seem to think that poverty is just a bad “choice”.

              Nick your defence of inequality and your instinctive distaste for democracy, naturally go together because you can’t have inequality without suppressing democracy.

              “…choice is a much better mechanism of providing accountability than voting.”

              Nick C

              In your own words Nick you oppose choice through voting because it does not depend on how rich you are. Nick you only want choice for the privileged, those who have the money to “choose” the best schools and private hospitals.

              You oppose high quality social provision of schools or hospitals, freely available to everyone on principle.

              Opposing social provision, means opposing democracy, because high class social provision is immensely popular with the majority of voters.

              Claiming that a graduated system of health provision and education based on the ability to pay, gives choice, is a lie, the facts are, this sort of system removes choice from the vast majority who are forced to put up with a second, or even third class treatment depending on their ability to pay.

              We only have to look to the US to see this inequality in action, where millions of people have no health insurance because the wages are too low to afford it, and so get zero health care. Where’s their choice?

  17. OleOlebiscuitBarrell 17

    Maybe you made some good arguments. I will never read them because I could not get past your misuse of “misnomer”. Maybe if you had had the choice of going to a better school…

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