13 September 2008

Choice Is Relative

If I wanted to choose a word that would sum up modern right-wing discourse, I would probably go with ‘choice’. Choice pervades right-wing ideologies, both as the holy grail-cum-magic bullet of British Conservative policy and as the chief Republican method of shouting down difficult questions. The word is firmly tied to both the mechanics and the morality of the free market, and, being derived from free will, essentially has Judeo-Christian theology rather than science and secular philosophy (which are at best split on free will) as its base. If we want to slay the dragon of illogical Tory drivel, the weak spot on its left breast seems to me to be choice. As the existence of free will is still under heavy investigation (though one experiment supposedly managed to disprove it), I will concentrate on the mechanics and morality of this so-called ‘choice’.

To disprove the function of choice in free-market capitalism is easy. I am using OpenOffice Writer to write this. My girlfriend uses the Tesco Office Suite. My parents use Microsoft Office. The Tesco product, £4.99, works abysmally. OpenOffice and MS Office are pretty much as good as each other, except Word has handy keyboard shortcuts for all the ä, è and ß characters and OpenOffice is, I’m told, more efficient and less prone to bugs. However there are two principle differences: firstly and most obviously, OpenOffice was free and MS Office costs £299.48 from Amazon. Secondly, OpenOffice can save documents in a variety of formats, as OpenOffice documents, as .pdf’s, as Word documents, as StarWriter documents and as various others. With Microsoft you are limited solely to Microsoft’s own format, both writing and reading. Therefore, as Microsoft leads the market and comes ready-installed on most PCs, most people cannot read .odt, .vor or anything other than .doc documents. This is just one example, but generally Microsoft’s dominant position and wilful ignorance of other products has allowed it to sell its product for three hundred quid when a competitor offers a slightly better one for free. How this can lead to the Adam Smith utopia where the best deals flourish and poor-quality or overpriced goods die out is beyond me. To further compound my point, the free-market dream does not take into account the enormous advertising budgets of large companies, the fact that people might just not know about the better product, or the social status attached to buying more expensive things. The fact that one of the most referred-to phenomena of modern sales, brand awareness, is not compatible with the free market dream casts doubt on its fundamentalists. Yes, a wider choice does filter out poor products, but it is neither the sole factor nor a complete solution.

Choice is also fundamental to right-wing morality as it explains, in simplistic terms, how the have-nots came to and therefore deserve to be so. The “choice to be rational” is at the centre of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, on which some of the most cracked and twisted of right-wing doctrines are based. This is however a Catch-22 situation – without already being rational, this decision cannot be made rationally. Those who are irrational quite obviously did not make a rational decision to be so. Even those who decide to be what they consider rational will not necessarily be doing so entirely rationally, and will in all likelihood have an irrational concept of what rationality entails. However the assumption that all choices are made rationally is a common false assumption among the right.

Let us start with the most ludicrous. America’s easily-mobilised ‘Christian Right’ justify their fierce heterosexism by saying that the ghastly homosexualists engage in their sickening and deviant behaviour by choice. This is hard to dispute without implying that gays are mindless automatons driven solely by their perverse urges. People do ‘choose’ their actions and lifestyle on some level, or at least choose to follow the inclinations they have. For whatever reason, people must have the desire before acting on it and therefore their ‘choice’ of homosexual behaviour is in fact between fulfilled and unfulfilled urges. It is not a choice between sordid, disgusting, disease-ridden gayness and wholesome all-American marital bliss but a three-way decision between total celibacy, a long, frustrating and unsatisfying sham-marriage and a life of hot man-to-man/girl-on-girl action. Put this way it seems less of a choice that the theocrats suggest.

Crime and education are also heavily prone to these unequal choices. The simple ‘choice’ to work hard in school is not the same for all people from all social backgrounds. Graduates who profited from hard work at school naturally place more importance on it than those who dropped out at fourteen, fifteen or sixteen, yet eventually accepted their lot and built a reasonably happy life.

As you progress up the social scale, the weight is pushed more and more towards the “study hard and become a lawyer” side of the choice, as you progress down the “drop out now and have some fun” side looks more and more attractive. For the child of non-graduate parents, the improved quality of life that comes with a University degree is all an added bonus to the lifestyle they are used to. But the more privileged the pupil’s background, the more they have to study to maintain their standard of living. To see the choice as “live on the dole or become something worthwhile” is naïve. It is: “Live as my parents, live better than my parents or live worse than my parents”. Put this way, we see that the working-class self-made man chooses the better lifestyle, the upper- or middle-class drop-out chooses the worse, but most people are content to live as well as or slightly better their parents, whatever background they come from and whatever life choices this might entail.

Juvenile delinquency is all too often seen as a typically plebeian affliction, and we in the chattering classes are quick to wonder what makes the criminal classes so prone to it. This is a mistake. Rather than ask why the proles are so prone to crime, ask where the bourgeoisie get their tendency to stick to the rules. The choice as presented by the crackdown-addicted Right, i.e. “Obey the law or risk prison for cheap thrills” only applies to those who already have absolutely nothing to lose. For anyone above the very bottom of the pile, they are risking however much opportunity and social status they inherited through accident of birth. The more privileges there are at stake – A-Levels, Oxbridge application, modern apprenticeship, the respect of parents and society in general etc. – the more the choice is weighted away from the graffiti-and-shoplifting spree. And the less social status someone has in wider society, the more value the respect of their peers has.

If the teen tearaway finds the chance to move into more professional crime, the choice is again differently weighted to how the typical Tory sees it. The simple fact is, crime does often pay, and so the more you could expect to earn, both in cash and social status, as a law-abiding citizen, the less attractive the money and respect crime can offer will seem. Those with fewer career opportunities have far more to gain and far less to lose from crime. The decision “doctor versus drug lord” is an easy one, “dole versus drug lord” less so.

The typical right-wing solution is to tip the balance by toughening sentences and removing prisoners’ rights. But what crime statistics usually show is that this approach has little to no effect at best, and that it is improved quality of life that leads to decreased crime. That is, if you give people more to lose, they are less inclined to lose it. And other ridiculous right-wing ideas and justifications can equally be analysed: “Most homeless people are homeless by choice” for example, what was the other option that made sleeping rough the best plan of action?

One of the things that I admire about right-wing discourse is the willingness to see things in clear, rational terms of individual choices. However we must be wary of over-simplification, and understand that a different set of circumstances means a different set of options, and with a different set of options will come a different final decision. The Left often suffers from an inability to put flighty academic doctrines into easily understandable terms, wide ideas that seem irrelevant to people’s experiences and abstract arts-graduate thinking that can seem illogical to those outside the system, and often with reason. The language of ‘choice’ is reasoned, linear and easy to understand, and so is used heavily by the Right to give a sheen of economic rationalism to prejudices and heavy over-simplifications. I believe not only that the Left can gain from adopting this language, but that if we drop the attitude that one choice fits all and use it to express the wide and nuanced variety of peoples’ decisions and situations, we can use it far more potently than our opponents.

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