by Paul Spicker, author of Reclaiming individualism, published today
Having ‘choice’ is assumed to be part of welfare, but when people write about it they may be referring to very different things. Part of the arguments for ‘choice’ are arguments for self-determination and freedom of action; those may not be enough to be sure of people’s welfare, but they are certainly important. In economic theory, however, choice is about something quite different – the selection of preferred options from a limited basket of goods. Choice in the second sense tells us very little about choice in the first.
Markets offer some choice, but they only go so far. In the first place, things that are being chosen have to be capable of being treated as commodities. Second, because commodities are scarce, people have to decide what they are ready to forego, as well as what they want. Third, producers have choices, too. They can decide what to provide, and who to provide it to. Producers compete, and they become ‘efficient’, because they are selective. There is often ‘adverse selection’; people who are isolated, poor or who have particular needs may not be served. The argument that markets provide choices, and that choices guarantee well-being, is contingent at best, and this is not always good enough to protect the situation of individuals. Markets might work, and they might not.
Individualisation and personalisation, similarly, are not necessarily good ways to improve individual welfare. There are some circumstances where policies ought to be tailored to the individual, usually after more general services and facilities are put in place. There are others where people need a common foundation of services and facilities, such as schools and hospitals. Where there is no road, the answer is not to issue everyone with boots.
Where governments claim to work for people as individuals, they need to engage with a wide range of activity promoting and safeguarding their welfare. Markets are not enough. Reclaiming individualism makes the case for taking individualism as a focus for actions to protect rights, extending basic security and empowering people as citizens.