Both democracy and liberal economics rely on free choice. Yet we are all influenced by cultural norms, advertising and vested interests. Might our freedom be an illusion, and if so how can we respond? Or are our current choices sufficient to make us freer than we have ever been?
Julian Le Grand is an academic specializing in public policy. He is a professor of social policy at the LSE and was a senior policy advisor to Tony Blair. He is the author of a number of books, including The Other Invisible Hand.
Here Le Grand speaks to the IAI about choice, freedom, and the role of the government in individual decision-making.
What did you feel was the concept of freedom during your debate?
The context in which we discussed it was in terms of the welfare state, and people having choices in schools or hospitals. I think there was a general feeling that people ought to have those sorts of choices. Of course, we’re all aware that choice and the freedom that goes with it are not always easy to exercise responsibly. You have to be well informed, you have to know what you’re doing, and in both health and education that’s somewhat of a problem.
I think too, that we have to recognise that too much choice can be a problem. There are psychological experiments that show that if people have a lot of choice, they’re often unhappier once they’ve made the choice and wish they’d chosen otherwise. For example, there’s an interesting psychological experiment in America where people were offered 6 marmalades or 28 marmalades. Firstly, they found it much easier to choose in the 6 marmalade instance, but also they regretted their choice less. Those choosing from 28 always came back and regretted their choice and were dissatisfied.
However, I think in general people should have a limited amount of choice. Particularly in otherwise fairly authoritarian or paternalistic areas, like healthcare and education, choice is a good thing.
You have talked about individuals having ‘Reasoning Failure’. Could you elaborate?
People have certain ends they want to achieve. They could be as broad as ‘a happy life’ or something more mundane like ‘stop smoking’. When trying to achieve those ends people often make mistakes. For example with stopping smoking, we all know how difficult people find it to do that. In our book, Government Determinism, there’s what we call ‘reasoning failure’. Failing to quit smoking is an example of reasoning failure. Specifically, we identify four kinds of reasoning failure where people make mistakes. One is similar to the marmalade instance – limited technical ability, where people find it difficult to process the information they’re given. Another is weakness of the will, what we see with the smoking instance. A third – and in some ways the most important – is a failure of imagination. When somebody picks up a cigarette when they’re 18, they find it hard to imagine when they’re 65 and suffering from lung cancer. It’s probably hard for them to imagine what it’s like being 65 at all, let alone with the problems involved.
"There are two key questions: firstly, could the government do better? And, secondly, will it do better?"
Often a lot of the big decisions in one’s life, particularly related to one’s health, but also to one’s savings and education, the immediate impact is now, but the benefits don’t accrue for 10, 20, 30 years. It’s easy to pick up a cigarette or eat a hamburger now, and feel remote from the likely consequences. That’s the big area of reasoning failure. Going back to the welfare state, that’s where the government can usefully intervene by helping people to save for their pension, or by banning smoking in public places. They can nudge people to do the right thing which individuals want to do, but find too difficult to do on their own.
How would each of us best avoid these failures of reasoning on the micro level?
Many of them are very difficult to avoid on the micro level. We all know that it’s hard to give up our habits. Most of our search was more directed at government. In these areas where we can identify that there’s a lot of reasoning failure going on – particularly in public health, with smoking and obesity, and areas like pensions and savings. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect people to be able to do it themselves. It’s useful to have the government to step in to assist them.
Why should we trust the government to make these kinds of decisions for us?
It’s a good question. There are two questions: firstly, could the government do better? And, secondly, will it do better? The government makes a lot of the same mistakes as individual people; it’s formed of individual people so of course they make mistakes. But I don’t think they’d be so likely to make those kinds of mistakes. The government does think about the future, possibly to a greater extent than individuals do. The danger is more that people in government will be pursuing their own agendas rather than thinking about the welfare of their citizens.
What we suggest in our book is that you cope with that by having a ‘sunset clause’ in the relevant legislation. Say a government wants to ban smoking completely, then you could add the clause that after five years the legislation has to be renewed, otherwise it lapses. There would have to be a debate in five years’ time, either in government or perhaps through a referendum, that checked whether people were happy with this restriction. You’d be holding the government to account in that way, and in a retrospective way, once people have experienced not having cigarettes. It tries to deal with the failure of imagination point even if it’s difficult to work out initially what things we like and want. So you give people the experience, and then have a retrospective check to see if the government’s been on the right lines.
Read more like this on IAI News...
- Julian Le Grand, In Defence of Competition
- Pippa Malmgren, Beyond Left and Right
- Karl Miller and Alex Krasodomski-Jones, The Party's Over
- Jamie White, Dunkin' Democracy