Saturday, 6 August 2011

I like choice - and so should you

Vivienne's masterpiece salmon
We hear often of the sin that is "consumption". Not the 18th and 19th century killer of literary genius but the preference that many of us have for spending a fair old chunk of the limited time we get on stuff we actually like doing. If you want to call that decadent, uncaring or planet-threatening that's fine by me. But I intend to carry on consuming.

And I am not swayed by the righteousness of some folk who, having failed to persuade us - the consumers - that consuming is a bad thing - have shifted the attack. The problem, they tell us, is choice - there's too much of it, it is making us anxious, stressed and meaning that we are no longer "organising ourselves and making a critique of society".

This little animation from RSA (entitled "Choice") peddled all this stuff - including the quote in the above paragraph. We have here all the regular left-wing anti-choice arguments including jolly little stories about how some bearded professor was uptight about which wine to buy in a restaurant or how some self-indulgent journalist wrote that sex life wasn't like the sex lives described in the pages of Cosmopolitan. Plus the usual rubbish about the stress we get from being over faced by the range on offer in the supermarket.

I feel so sorry for all these sensitive folk living in their convenient little anecdotes. But the argument - so typical of pop psychology - is founded in story and prejudice rather than in the reality of consumer behaviour. Yes, consumers will tell you they don't like choice. But consumers also use heuristics to mange and moderate choices - mostly they're called brands although they may also be choices about shopping location or, today, the use of comparison web-sites. There is an entire academic discipline - consumer behaviour - that studies such stuff.

More substantially, however, the argument against choice presented here tiptoes towards anti-capitalism - not just through an ignorance of what, precisely, we might mean by capitalism (it is presented as the creator of our consumer society) but through the contention that choice is used by "capitalism" to prevent us from achieving "social change". I have to smile at the manner in which "capitalism" is anthropomorphised - made to have an existence as master of an "ideology of choice".

But what is the alternative to this "ideology of choice"?  Logic tells us that the only alternative must be an "ideology of choice denial". Our choices - whether of wine with dinner, of places to live or of clothes to wear would be constrained, limited and even stopped entirely (bit like healthcare really). And one presumes - although this isn't stated - the limitation of choice would require mandation. Somebody will have to set out the choices we can have - assuming that "somebody" actually thinks we should have any choice at all.

So the argument presented - for all its wit and literacy - is profoundly illiberal, requires a mechanism for limiting choice (so we are not stressed or otherwise pained by our choices) and represents the continuation of the Nancy Klein attack on that choice. Or rather on the "wrong sort of choice" (as we can characterise Ms Klein's argument) - the idea that the brand "McDonalds" is essentially different from "Liberal " or indeed from "Chateau Lafitte Rothschild". All are those pesky heuristics - short-cuts to decision-making - that enable a complex consumer society to work.

Although the RSA do not present any alternative - "organising to achieve social change" is as far as it goes - the vision, characterised by the use of bees as a metaphor, owes more to Aldous Huxley than to a happy vision of the future. Indeed it could be this:

"Our world is not the same as Othello's world. You can't make flivvers without steel-and you can't make tragedies without social instability. The world's stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can't get."

Please let it not be so. Let us be free. Stop speaking of some idea of social change as if "social change" is absolutely desirable. And stop offering excuses that permit governments to control our lives, to remove our choices. And stop already with this angst, this post-millennial ennui, this pseudo-guilt trip - choice is good, it makes us happier, healthier, wealthier and, each day, the chance to do it differently means that innovation, change - even social change - takes place.

However, the sad little assault on choice will continue, partly because some folk makes choices that people who do cute animations for the RSA disapprove of (you know getting drunk, smoking and eating the wrong food) but mostly because the social change that is driven by choice isn't the "social change" such people want. Rather than the controlling hand of the benevolent masters directing the ignorant towards enlightenment, we get a messy, exciting, chaotic mish-mash of changes - some fantastic, some problematic but all of them driven by the individual actions, initiatives and, yes, choices of men and women doing stuff they like doing.

Choice is good. And don't ever forget it!

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14 comments:

Jon Beech said...

It's hard to argue against choice.

I am far from a hair shirted compulso-phile, bent on forcing, hectoring or nudging folk into lifestyle choices. And god forbid I should ever have the temerity to attempt to persuade them into voting for me, or one of my henchmen.

But I am deeply suspicious of making choices the key act of morality.

(Now, this may sound a bit odd, and I may not have thought this through very well, but please bear with me whilst I try to make sense of this assertion.)

Choice has become particularly important to humans, ever since they started faffing about with the ideas that they could somehow shape their destinies.

In fact humans have valorised (or do I mean lionised?) the concept of choice so much, they have anthropomorph'ed its effects (the Invisible Hand) and given it a starring role in the metaphysical mystery plays concocted to explain Free Will.

But to make choice-acts the main focus of our ethical or economic systems is to beg the question of what real choices we have in the first place. On closer inspection our free choices are often limited: either numerically ("the rock or the hard place"), or by previous choices we have made further up the decision making tree ("once I've missed a particular the exit off the motorway, that choice is effectively closed to me - even though it's still open to others"); or by awareness ("I didn't even know I could make a choice"); fear/confidence ("what will be the consequences of making the wrong choice?"); a desire to look before I leap, frustrated by the limitations of the real world ("I like to know all my choices before making them, but there isn't time to get to know the content of every book before I choose which one to read"); or... As you can see, I really can go on and on about this, but it's important at this point we have a shared understanding of how the "same" choices are experienced differently at different points by different people. So the choice of one thing or another is neither the same from person to person, nor are they necessarily morally equivalent.

Jon Beech said...

By taking a hard-line pro-choice stance (all choices are de facto good, and any restriction of choice necessarily illiberal) one ignores the real meaninglessness of choices and the act of deciding for many people, much of the time.

So, my point is this: decisions which place the locus of ethical activity on the choice itself (rather than on the way in which a choice is made) are flogging one particular flavour of decision making, and one which ultimately benefits those who sell particular choices (or their simulacra) for a living. (These could be people selling particular Brands of religion, politics, or other moral vacuum cleaners.)

Which brings me back to why choice itself can be a distraction. If the choice-act itself becomes more important than the things leading up to that choice (reflection, research, understanding, discussion) then the choice itself is absurd. (This btw is actually a very sound position to take in my book - and also in Camus' http://goo.gl/H2Gz - but we'll come back to this later on).

I'll grant you that the RSA animation does muddy the waters somewhat with it's fuzzy leftish thoughts on change being synonymous with "change for the better" or progress - which is self-evidently bunk. But organising ourselves and making a critique of society is not necessarily the preserve of the left - eg the EDL, the Tea Party movement etc)

This is where heuristics or brands start getting interesting.

Because fascists from the Right will tell you choice is a bad thing ("buy my brand of limited choice and grind the degenerate choice-monkeys under our heels") as will fascists from the left ("THEIR brand of limited choices are shit AND morally repugnant"). Their use of Brand is not a help to choice making, but a reflection of the very human desire to have their choices made for them. This is a much a pop at dialectical materialists as EDL boot-boys btw.

Jon Beech said...

The true opposite to the ideology of choice is not "choice denial" in the sense of restricting the number of choices available to people, but a refusal to find meaning in those choice-acts themselves. If all this sounds terribly high falootin' then remember the last time you said to yourself (whilst bewildered by the range of toothpastes on the shelf of a supermarket_ "Sod it - they're all the same anyway".) That's what you're doing: you are giving up in front of a bewildering range of choices which are - at best - a way of making money from the central act of Christian religious observance*.

[deletes a whole paragraph on Max Weber http://goo.gl/OCYoC, and John Gray at this point http://goo.gl/nWQcp]

Choice is neither good nor bad. But making it out to be the central moral act of our culture is exceptionally tendentious. That there are those who seek to capitalise upon/ monetise our existential confusion is hardly surprising. It's a sure fire way of making money. As is insider trading.

So where was I again? Ah yes - your odd little paragraph at the end. Which makes the RSA sound like the provisional wing of Common Purpose, with a strong dose of Public Health thrown in. I'm not at all sure most RSA fellows - or associates or whatever they're called - have a party line on what they do or do not approve of.

What they do encourage is public debate, and serious thinking via the medium of cartoonery.

And if nothing else, it's helped me explain my slightly anarcho-absurdist 3rd way between the free market and state socialist thinking of a Saturday evening.

Next?

*And before you tell me you're not Christian, bear in mind Humanism, is just hollowed out apocalyptic-christianity.

Snowdon said...

What an awful video (good artwork though). More pandering to middle class neuroses and blaming petty anxieties on the free market. Really, why should we care about affluent self-absorbed idiots who worry about what wine to buy in restaurants? What kind of person is 'horrified' by the choice in supermarkets? Make a list and look for the BOGOFs. Is this what it's come to? Not exactly what Karl Marx had in mind when he said we have nothing to lose but our chains, is it?

I wish these people would have the courage to say what they mean and not pansy around talking vaguely about 'social change'. Have they considered that the reason aren't demanding 'social change' is because life has never been better, or that if the RSA did explain what it meant by social change, people would run a mile?

Mike Chitty said...

Choice is a double edged sword. We should suspect that anyone who says it is either good or bad as ideologues.
The more we can help people to understand the range and nature of the choices that face them and make judgement of their qualities - by an large the better.

Jon Beech said...

Snowdon, you miss the point.

In my field (health and social care) choice is increasingly touted as the panacea for all our woes. Importantly, choice is being thrust upon old people, people with learning disabilities, mental health problems and many others whose ability to wield informed choice has been systematically eroded over time by meddlesome do-gooders. Although, one positive side effect of this has been that they have produced a whole bunch of people who act with an inchoate cynicism about the virtue of choice - recognising it to be the bourgeois badge that it so often is.

Banging drums and waving flags for choice as an end in itself (rather than as a means to an end) helps noone except perhaps those who broker choice for a living.

Yes, choice is a habit, which can be developed. And yes there has been too little choice in the past (I am a bulging-eyed advocate of personalisation) But focusing upon choice as an act rather than the journey that gets you there is arse witted in the extreme.

The confusion people are describing in their various winelist and supermarket paralyses is remarkably similar to the confusion experienced by many people I know who are being asked to make decisions in the context of their social care/health planning.

They are being asked, and persuaded to make choices they are ill prepared to make, in a timeframe which is not theirs.

The support they want might be as simple an intervention as yours (make a list and look for the BOGOFs) or it might be more complex.

Or it may well be that despite this cultural revolution in market-reorientation, they realise their choices are not really that different from one another. And that they were right all along.

But like I say, I think you missed the point

Snowdon said...

With respect, I think you're too caught up in the issue of health. There are times when choice is a scam. The video correctly identifies the 'choice' of picking between gas an electricity companies. This is generally a lot of hassle for very little gain, but that is because the government, wrongly IMO, created the illusion that a free market could be created from a natural monopoly. The issue of healthcare is, I would think, very similar, but this is not the fault of capitalism. On the contrary, it is due to state-owned monopolies being given the veneer of capitalism.

But when real choice is available, I am entirely lacking in sympathy for people who claim it makes them anxious. Barry Schwarz begins his book 'The Paradox of Choice' with a tale of going to buy a pair of jeans and finding all sorts of new varieties that he had not previously been aware of. As with the hyper-sensitive wine-buyer, what can one say to this but diddums?

Choice exists because people want it. Businesses would not offer different products unless there was a demand for all of them. Limit choice and you deny minorities the products they want. That seems to me a more severe restriction of freedom than causing a few seconds of angst to pampered intellectuals. Incidentally, it would be interesting to know how many supermarket aisles have been added to cater for the refined dietary tastes of the average RSA member.

Ivor Tymchak said...

The 'illusion of choice' is completely different from choosing between alternatives. If I am unhappy with the banks and want an alternative way of doing business, there is no real alternative. Sure, I can choose between bank brands but this is a choice between a rock and a hard place (to paraphrase Jon Beech).
You may think you have limitless choice of soap powders for your washing machine but only two manufacturers produce all the brands. You have been sold the idea of 'choice' by those that profit from the idea (you can see where this is going).
'Choice' is a red herring, profit is the only game in town (see what I did there?).
You've been told what dream, so take it (unfortunately, there is no 'leave it', that's how limited we are in our choices).

Jon Beech said...

If I'm too caught up in anything, I think it's in the grand narratives of religion, politics, ethics and metaphysics - not the brief foray into health/social care.

In case it wasn't clear: the thrust of my argument is that the centrality given to the act of choice-making in religion, economics, politics etc is the fetishisation of a particular moment. The centrality given by the main beneficiaries of our current cultural/economic system to this moment, this act of making a choice is a sleight of hand. It is most often a simulacrum of choice. And many people asked to make these choices know and recognise this on a very deep, sometimes pre-linguistic level.

It's a shame that this discussion has veered off into the rather tedious assertion of supply-side shibboleths intermingled with lazy ad-hominem brickbats hurled at effete academic caricatures.

My attempt to ground the discussion in something very real (social care, more than health, tbh) was an attempt to make the discussion about something other than amusing fictions.

Although as you say, you are entirely lacking in sympathy for people who claim real choices make them anxious, I really don't think you mean this. My experience of most hard-line free-marketeers who relish their swaggering rhetoric is that they respond with great compassion and care to people who struggle to improve their lot. Diddums is something they say to impress each other, rather than a real response to the anguish of others.

Finally, choice exists because we live in an abundant world - not because people want it. (you may as well say the sun shines more in Hawaii because people want sunny weather when they go there on holiday). Our society has perhaps turned up the volume on choice for a whole host of reasons, but it is at the very least a peculiar feature of market-driven economies, and not a universal principle.

Nice to meet you btw. And thanks for answering back

Simon Cooke said...

Thank you for all the comment - Jon B was as challenging as always.

However I remain troubled by the idea that "choice is a problem" or indeed Ivor's "you don't really have a choice any way" argument.

In the case of the former, I remain of the view that more choice is better than less choice but accept that sometimes the choice ain't really a choice. But is choice is a problem and should be reduced who does the choosing for us?

As to Ivor's argument, it really is so much nonsense to argue that choice is created to increase profit. Leaving aside the economics (which suggest the opposite), it is more expensive to produce six brands rather than one so why do it? Because it responds to the consumer's desire - and expectation - that products improve. Our washing powders are vastly better at their job than those of 30 years ago (this is a fact).

And still nobody has explained what this wonderful "social change" might be - perhaps they can't? In which case I'm sticking with markets and with choice becasue they make my life better.

Ivor Tymchak said...

Okay, let's go back to market basics...
Unilever and Proctor & Gamble market many washing powders to a) give the consumer the impression of choice, but more importantly, b) to crowd out the market so any competitor is dissuaded from entering the market due to excessive marketing costs. This leaves the field clear for two manufacturers to maximise their profits—it doesn't matter how well their brands sell because, ultimately, all profits go to them. Ideally, they would both prefer to be a monopoly but I guess, legislation prevents this. It really is that brutal. Wake up from your hypnotised admiration of the markets and realise that as capitalism develops, the markets become more and more rigged.

Simon Cooke said...

Ivor - UK market share for the big two detergent manufacturers has fallen from 84% in 2005 to 62% in 2009 - this doesn't suggest that new entrants to the market are unable to compete of to capture market share from them. So no, I don't buy your argument at all - it is founded in prejudice rather than an understanding of the manner in which markets actually operate.

So yes there are several brands from each of these companies but they are losing share - mostly to 'own-brand' products. So I guess you'll get all smug and lefty about Tesco next. hey ho!

Ivor Tymchak said...

Admittedly, my specific example was dated (assuming your research is accurate) as it originated from A level economics which I took decades ago, but the principle holds good. Today, globalization means that cozy local monopolies are threatened by much bigger monopolies from elsewhere (god forbid that any small country finds oil underneath itself and declares it to be off limits to anyone else).

I'll wait for you to finish writing your own rebuttal to your argument, as you can clearly see the flaw in it by mentioning Tesco...

Ivor Tymchak said...

Bt the way, this explains why such developments are inevitable;
http://www.tymchak.com/blog/?p=570