Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Choice is a good thing. Isn’t it?

I have been following the ongoing choice debate with some interest, especially given my predilection for free market economics (yes, I admit it, I’m on the right wing of the Party, whatever that means…). However, as a bureaucrat, I have some reservations, based predominantly on the concept of provision of real choice for real people.

Firstly, let’s be realistic about the extent to which the offer of choice will actually apply. In rural areas, where service provision is limited by viability and geography, a meaningful choice of schools, doctors and, to some extent, hospitals, will be decidedly limited. Don’t get me wrong, this is not an argument against offering choice, merely a note to be borne in mind when the great campaign for choice is rolled out. To some extent, choice is an urban issue, whereas in villages and hamlets across the country, having a viable school within reach at all is the pressing concern. Doctor’s surgery? If you’re lucky, although you’ll probably have to go to a town, where you’ll be competing with locals for a place on their list.

One of the key aspects to meaningful choice is access to the information needed to make a good choice. School league tables, operative success rates and the like are freely available, but predominantly via the Internet. Whilst the question of the ‘digital divide’ is still an open one, and it really isn’t one that I’ve heard any political party address recently, the chances are that the poor and the elderly will be restricted in their access to the information they require. Yes, public libraries and internet cafes are a solution, although access to them is somewhat limited, but is that sufficient, and are we willing to provide extra resources to connect people to the information they need?

I am reassured to some extent by the talk of empowerment, although words are cheap. There will necessarily be a role for the state in gathering, collating and providing information to those wishing to exercise their right to choose, and we need to decide how that role is delivered, and by whom. We will also need to provide support to ‘customers’, and a decision on how that support is best provided is one that will come with costs.

However, my primary concern is that choice, unless properly supported, will create yet another divide in our society. The very wealthy have choice because they can, quite simply, pay for it. The middle classes will have choice because they are ambitious enough to seek it. On the other hand, the child of parents who lack ambition for themselves and their loved ones (and I acknowledge that there are generational and other issues here) are less likely to seek the best options and therefore more likely to accept what the state ‘gives’ them.

I am a child of the 1960’s. Partly because of the change of culture over the intervening years, and partly because my parents very wisely brought me up without a burning desire to have ‘stuff’, I tend to the view that there are people out there who ‘want it’ more than I do. I’m not desperately ambitious. On the other hand, there are people out there who are, and if I’m not careful, there is the risk that I will be trampled to death as an innocent standing between them and what they want. Choice is like that. Thus, it is my contention that, in a liberal society, you don’t simply give people choice, you actively empower people to make the best choices.

Such a stance comes with a cost, at least as far as a government is concerned. However, if we genuinely believe in choice for all, we are going to have to address that cost in a clear and measured manner. I trust that those who are most enthusiastic in pursuit of the choice agenda will bear that in mind…


Tristan said...

Firstly, the divide you worry about already exists. It is created by the lack of any choice for the poor.

Secondly, I think there are two meanings of choice - the first being there is no legal impediment to making a choice, the other is based upon circumstance.

The second can never truly be eradicated - being born in Zimbabwe means you don't have the choice to attend a British school (unless you're very lucky), that is never going to be fixable for the majority (although remote schooling is a possibility for the future).

We can't change the world in such ways. What we can do is to remove institutional and governmental impediment to choice.

Tyson said...

The gap you are talking about will always exist. This is natural inequality. We all no stories of the poor being ambitious enough to get any kind of information and making the right decisions. Here we come to the question why the poor are poor.