More about ‘choice’

I put the word in inverted commas to make ‘choice’ seem a little opaque. Its meaning is usually assumed to be straightforward and it is assumed to be a Good Thing. Yes, choice is pretty good, but it is not at all straightforward.

For some purposes, ‘choice’ can be treated as a ‘black box’ – we’re not interested asking why people choose, we only need to know what they choose, treating that choice as a ‘revealed preference’. In case there are any economists reading this (unlikely), this sounds to me like a useful procedure for some purposes – the social sciences make use of simplification and abstraction just as the natural sciences do. But asking ‘what causes one choice over another?’ is highly relevant for other purposes and there is a lot of research (both observational and experimental) looking at this.

What I’m getting at here is that choice of travel behaviour (“oh well, now we’ve moved to the country we really must get a car”) is not neutral in the way that, say, choosing between the chocolate gateau and the strawberry cheesecake would be. If so many people chose the cheesecake that you couldn’t find decent gateau anymore, it wouldn’t matter that much. It would be sad for the choc-fans, of course, and a slight reduction in cultural liveliness for everyone, but I don’t think there would be the justification for legislation, choc-awareness campaigns or public subsidy for gateau-making equipment. Nobody’s freedom would be impinged on in any important way. But the current transport arrangements (i.e. the primacy of personal driving) do violate freedom in important ways, (which I will talk about in a future post) and they do cause harm, as previously argued .

So we do want to ask why people make the travel choices they do, and to insist otherwise (“modal agnosticism”) is, I think, a misunderstanding of economics and a fantasy about the possibility of a “level playing field”.

Choices are not isolated.

Right then, we make choices in a context. So for example, it might make sense to do your shopping once a week, or fortnight, in an out of town supermarket – it saves time and money which you need for other things. Correct choice. But why is there an out of town supermarket, with a jinormous free car park, and super-cheap food? Because a heroic entrepreneur who loves to take risks set one up? Oh come on. A decision was made to allow a very rich company (which knows exactly how small a risk it is taking) to build it. The company’s behaviour is fine – that’s what companies do and competitive aggression can, if kept in harness, be very beneficial.

But society does not have to say “yes” to every request from aggressive companies, because what is good for Tesco’s business is not necessarily good for society’s business. And yet, the more “yes’s” have already been said, the harder it becomes to say “no”, the harder it becomes to even think “no”. It does become genuinely difficult. It has become genuinely difficult.

That small planning decision to allow the out-of-town supermarket sits within a context of myriad other small planning decisions about the built environment, stretching back throughout much of the previous century, but which were all made with the presumption that more car-ownership was a good thing, would produce good results, would increase wealth and make us happier. There was a presumption that car-use should be fostered (and doesn’t that word sound just a wee bit, erm, nannyish?). Those decisions brought about the current situation, where many people ‘have to’ (and a few really do have to), drive everywhere.

The way out of this situation is via myriad small decisions which admit that there were some unanticipated consequences of our previous decisions and that we now want something different.


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