Challenging choice in society

Following the recent discussion on the Today programme about choice in society (listen again here), Michael Clarke, author of the forthcoming Challenging choices, writes:

Choices proliferate in every corner of our lives, not just in the supermarket, the clothing shop and online, but in the knowledge, techniques and drugs available in medicine, in the options for savings and investments, in building our short or long term relationships, in how we bring up our children. Compared to those suffering poverty, authoritarian government and patriarchal family life we are surely privileged and have achieved mighty progress over the past centuries. Choice is central to our way of life and empowers and enables us.

So can we never have too much choice? Is it always a benefit? At some point each of us will be overwhelmed at having to choose between too many alternatives, or at having to make too many choices in sequence. We routinise, have habits, have favourite brands, leave it up to others, to alleviate these problems, but the issue returns.

Not all choices are easy: try choosing a pension arrangement unless there is a good occupational scheme available to you. The consequences of a choice may be severe and yet the responsibility rests firmly with the chooser. And choice does not always work. Do we really have a choice of train operators, or merely regional monopoly, high prices and ticketing confusion? Surely there are other ways? But is that not in itself a bit of a contradiction: other and better ways than choice?

What do you think? Is more choice always better? What are the alternatives and are they necessarily any better? We’d love to hear your views, so please add your comments to the discussion.

1 Response to “Challenging choice in society”


  1. 1 Peter King February 19, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    Some interesting points here, but I think we need to be clear just what choice is and how it tends to come about.

    Choice is not an inherent quality, but the product of decision-making, more often than not determined by a particular situation in which we find ourselves. Many of the choices we make, particularly with regard to public and social policy (but also relating to consumption), become necessary because of certain trigger events which create situations we cannot avoid: we need a bigger house because of a new child; we need to move as we have changed jobs.

    So choice, quite often, is something we do because we have to, because, properly speaking, we have to choose.


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