Freedom is Choice

After I had seen the the earth troll around the sun a mere twelve times, I read 1984.  I suppose I may have been a tad young for some of its thematic material but I felt there was a need to hurry before the eponymous year was upon me (and then forever consigned to the past).  I don’t think the experience has scarred me and to be honest I can remember little of its contents at this temporal remove.

A few years later (and safely post 1984), BBC Radio 4 produced a comedy series entitled 1994: looking to the future of our consumer society.  This has stayed with me to a much greater extent: I can still remember the importance of 73%, Sellingfield, Executive and Dreamer.  I’m not sure what this says about me – perhaps that if you want me take your serious message on-board, it had better by carrying a decent quota of jokes as ballast?  Anyway, it is from this series that the title is taken – and in particular, episode 2 where the illegal social experiment being performed in Cumbria without the knowledge of the Environment (or so they claimed) is revealed.

Recent governments have been much enamoured of offering we, the electorate and tax paying masses, choice.  I can see the superficial charm of the idea: the public sector is often considered to offer a poor and expensive service and exposure to the white-heat of competition should make them both better and cheaper.  The worst providers will go out of “business”, as bad companies are supposed to do, and the best will gradually take over provision of more and more services.  In this rosy world, companies in the private sector all offer an excellent service at a very competitive price.  It all sounds quite splendid, but sadly it does not seem to correspond terribly closely to the world in which I find myself.  

The introduction of competition also begs the question as to what is the basis of the competition.  How would someone with a letter to send know which mail service to choose?  It is all to easy to imagine cost being the sole, or over-riding determinant, subject to any minimum legal standards laid down.  If you are a business in central London, I’m sure there will be plenty of companies vying for you delivery dollars but if you are a granny in the Outer Hebrides I suspect you may have rather fewer choices (probably the poor sap who has been selected as the provider of last resort).  In the purely commercial sphere, companies tend to compete for business that is profitable: though they do, of course, make mistakes like any organisation which involves people.  The mail is one thing, but in the world of commercial healthcare you will definitely want to make sure you have a popular and profitable injury or illness.  Perhaps we could find some less commercial grounds for hospitals to compete on?  You can’t directly use patients cured, as this would encourage the tackling of easily fixed diseases and injuries – and be no help at all for those suffering with anything incurable.  We’d need an amazingly complicated scoring system covering every possible illness and injury and the value of improvements or otherwise in a patient’s condition.  Presumably, you’d also have to keep monitoring the patient in case they deteriorated (or improved) after check-out and manage the whole reversion-to-the-mean issue.  All somewhat of a nightmare to organise (and keep up-to-date), which brings me nicely to targets.

The alternative to choice – or sometimes an adjunct to it – are targets.  You set nice measurable targets for everyone to achieve.  This tends to work quite well, people tend to move towards achieving the targets quite quickly and indeed I saw some lovely Stalin-themed examples of this process in action on Tuesday evening.  Sadly, the targets are usually met by neglecting everything else or by exhibiting a certain flexibility with the numbers (constructive redefinition of terms is the target seeker’s friend) or both.

I feel that both choice and targets are over-rated: one needs a certain number of each or the world would be terrifically boring and inefficient, but they should (like the Scotch Bonnet) be used sparingly.

Experience of eating out over the last couple of years has certainly offered anecdotal evidence for some of the benefits of having only a rather limited choice.  Since becoming mostly vegetarian, I try and stick to the ‘vegetarian’ part when eating out at a restaurant or cafe (‘mostly’ I leave for visiting or entertaining friends).  Unless my chosen dining venue is vegetarian itself, there tends to be relatively few choices on offer to the aspiring veggie.  This has required me to make rather more exciting choices of meal, straying rather further from the comfortable and familiar, than would have been the case when I had the run of the entire menu.  I don’t think I have ever had cause to regret my straying – and, indeed, many of these choices have made it (in some adapted form) onto my menu at home.

I would say that ‘Freedom is Limited Choice’, but that makes it sound like an exam where you have to select an answer from (a) to (e) – preferably on a basis other than the purely random.  These are very easy to mark – well, they are once you’ve managed to program the OCR successfully (trust me, I’ve done it) – but are a rather limited form of testing (though preparing the wrong answers when writing them is surprisingly enjoyable).  So perhaps I should go with ‘Tyranny is Too Much Choice’ instead.  Too much choice is also a terrible time-waster and so is probably harming our fragile economy.  So, here’s to less choice!


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