At a bakery you can have any kind of cake you like: chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, raspberry.. Indeed thanks to the great defenders of individual choice in the baking world there are now hundreds of flavors for you to choose. You can’t choose bacon or chicken at the bakery however, and bakers have yet to introduce the lamb custard. The baking industry has been deliberately designed and regulated so as to maximize the number of available products—up to a point. In baking circles it is heretical to suggest that fish is an appropriate dessert choice. And shoes will never be for sale.
In our economic system (bakery) one may not choose one’s salary, office, boss, or the quality of his workstation or area, and only occasionally can he choose his hours. Of course, we can choose between one terrible job where we do not have these choices and another terrible job where we do no have these choices. Why, there are many jobs available to us, in principle, wherein we cannot choose anything important. We can have chocolate crappy jobs, strawberry crappy jobs and even vanilla crappy jobs. But always at the heart of the choice is our total future restriction.
And this is the basic structure of choice: Every choice we make is always one from a limited number of options. But our choices are not only limited by tacit assumptions about what should or should not go on cheesecake. Our choices are also limited by our looks, our wealth, our intelligence – and most of all today, by our location. More and more however, we are sold the virtue of increasing the number of options available, but not their kind or quality.
Solutions to this problem of the “quality of economic choices” abound, but many attempts to improve the quality of the choices are systematically undermined by contemporary economic and political thinking. Democracy proper is feared and despised in many areas of the current intellectual climate and “Individual Freedom of Choice” is presented as an inviolable virtue of contemporary society – a Natural Right against which all societies should be judged. It is taken for granted that this freedom is meaningful, that its prescriptions and prohibitions are clear – that a society of great freedom is clearly distinguishable from one of limitation. And indeed, that “limitation” is the natural opposite of the freedom to choose.
However, there is a fundamental incoherence to the universal prescription of the freedom to choose: since anyone choosing anything is impossible, the parameters of this freedom are who is choosing and what they can choose – ie., it is impossible to universalize (and thus cannot be a Right at all).
In raising choice as such to a moral imperative we create choices for the sake of choosing, moral dilemmas where none need exist. In a system of private healthcare a parent of two children may face a dilemma: In an accident affecting both children, and with limited funds at the family’s disposal, which child should the parents prioritize? Perhaps more pertinently, in a system of private education, and with limited funds: Which child should be sent to the better private school, and which the worse? It is a virtue in a system of “free choice” for this question to be forced upon you by circumstance. With universal education, health, etc. parents are spared the horror of evaluating their child’s worth. The “cost” of a universal system is that you have fewer choices – but in what sense could this be a cost at all, in what sense can choice as such have a value (i.e., the act of choosing regardless of what options are available)?
The relevant political and moral calculations should, then, always be: What options are we exchanging when we act politically – what new choices are being forced upon us, what is the kind and quality of their options? To be able to pose these questions, however, we cannot do so as individuals – since an individual is always beholden to the system in which they are operating. An individual can no more decide on the meaning of words in the language he’s using as how other people will treat him.
An individual person cannot demand of society to be treated as equal to every other, for example. For some, these limitations of circumstance (the loud bigotries of society, economy, and politics) are the natural inheritance of any free person – freedom consists in playing this game, not in organizing collectively to challenge it. What individualists of this kind miss is that these bigotries are already collective decisions, that racism is merely an institution without self-awareness.
Therefore, breaking apart collective bodies (from, say, a group of citizens to a worker’s union) does not “free” individuals from the tyranny of collective decisions; it just changes the parameters of limitation toward the irreflexive, unchanging, and narrow. In the absence of a union, the board makes all the decisions for workers. In the absence of a government, prejudice takes this role. When fewer people provide the parameters of our choices, fewer interests are expressed: When it is only the board who decides how a company is run, then people work the longest hours possible – leisure time existing only in equilibrium with efficient work. And when a larger irreflexive group provides the parameters of choice less moral interests are expressed: racism, sexism, feudalism, sectarianism and the other stupidities of spontaneous reaction.
Thus the individual is in a constant face-off with his culture and circumstances, the tension emanating from the fundamental constraints on his choices. Only by making collective decisions reflective and accountable, by making economic, political, social and moral systems themselves available for modification – for choice – can the individual assert, through others and themself, any meaningful freedom of choice.