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Eliminating choice impoverishes society

By Ross Farrelly - posted Monday, 10 July 2006


The concepts of choice and freedom are inextricably linked and I will argue here that just as human freedom is an absolute good and should only be curtailed when it would limit the freedom of others, so choice is, in almost all cases, an absolute good and should be maximised in virtually every possible situation.

In order to avoid the evils of totalitarian rule, we must assume, unless presented with overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that adult citizens are the best directors of their own lives. We must acknowledge that the individual is the best judge of the direction of his or her life, which talents he or she should exercise and how and where individuals seek their fortunes. With this responsibility individuals flourish or flounder according to their own endeavours and learn from both successes and mistakes.

By placing the responsibly for choice at the feet of the individual, society acknowledges the inherent intelligence of every adult citizen, and with this acknowledgement the inherent intelligence is encouraged to grow and find its full expression.

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Consider a trivial and somewhat absurd example. Every weekend a small army of Australian citizens mobilises in pursuit of the perfect lawn. Citizens across the nation fire up their motor mowers and set out to mow their own lawns.

Suppose a benign, but misguided government, were to come to the conclusion that this onerous task was beyond the competency of the average Australian and established a Department of Domestic Lawn Management. Suppose further that it increased taxes and arranged for lawns across Australian to be mowed by Domestic Lawn Management engineers. Before long most Australians would have forgotten how to mow their own backyards. The fine art of mixing fuel, changing spark plugs and setting blade heights would be lost, and the community would be poorer for it.

Take away the responsibility and the ability disappears. Multiply this effect a hundred fold, once for every government service which could be performed by individuals and the degradation of the citizenry becomes evident.

In the same way, removing choice from citizens for important issues such as health, superannuation or schooling disengages the population from these issues. In his book, An Economic Theory of Democracy, Anthony Downs shows that voters are by and large ignorant of many important political issues, even at election time. Down argues that this disengagement from the political process is rational because voters know that their individual vote is unlikely to decide an election and that the direct result of casting a well-informed vote is almost nil. Since the voter has limited time and resources to devote to following political developments, it is rational that he or she invest these in following issues in which an individual has a direct means of influence.

Thus we see that dinner table discussion in Sydney are dominated by fluctuation in local house prices rather than the latest federal initiative to further centralise education by introducing a common leaving certificate for all states.

People take an interest in issues upon which they have some direct influence and which immediately affect them. It is for this reason that competition, choice and market forces make such a powerful engine for driving innovation and excellence. Take for example these comments (pdf file 1.45MB) on superannuation by Malcolm Brough in parliament in June this year.

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Today we are here to talk about choice. … This side of the House actually believes [the Australian people] have the capability to choose for themselves, and they have done so ... It was interesting to read [in] the Financial Review today … the headline: “Everyone’s a winner in transition to choice era”. That is the Financial Review giving it the thumbs up. Why are they a winner? They are a winner because people have lower fees, better service, greater choice and a greater return on their savings ... As the Australian people head into Christmas time, they will know that this government will continue to provide choice.

I have argued elsewhere that similar reasoning holds for choice in education.

Individual freedom and individual choice is a powerful force for excellence, especially when there is a mechanism to pool the collective intelligence of a large number of people.

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About the Author

Ross Farrelly works for a statistical software company. His blog can be found at rossfarrelly.blogspot.com.

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