Rebecca Lowe is Director of FREER — a new initiative promoting economic and social liberalism. She is also an Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.
Somewhere between the banning of junk food adverts, the introduction of minimum alcohol pricing, those annoying bus-stop signs telling you how many calories you should eat for lunch, and Jamie Oliver’s hypocritical piousness, there’s a shouty line between a nudge and a shove.
I’ve always disliked the taste of sugary soft drinks, but my distaste for the government’s drive to reduce British consumption of them is much, much greater. Many smart pieces have been written about the regressive nature of indirect taxation, and I hate that policies like the “sugar tax” hit the poorest hardest, not only because they tend to be unit-based, but also because they’re often directed at the products that those on lower incomes tend to consume disproportionately. But what I hate more is that these policies are premised on the idea that the state should step in when people are making “bad” choices.
Why? My first argument is pretty conceptual, but I think it’s at the heart of all this: there’s value in making one’s own choices, even if they’re “bad” ones. Indeed, I believe there’s value in being able to choose to do something, even if the thing you choose doesn’t have any value at all, itself. The guy who’s lost in the desert who can only choose between eating a poisonous bug and eating a cactus doesn’t gain much from having that choice, but, surely, it’s of some value in some way. This argument hangs on the value of individual autonomy — on the dignity of human beings as decision-makers. This may be a pretty narrow understanding of the value of freedom — tying it up in our ability to choose, rather than in the value of the choices that we make — but it seems like an important starting point.
My second argument is a bit more base. It comes down to something a friend once said to me about french fries: “They’re salt and they’re fat, what’s not to like?”. And that’s it in microcosm, really. Why do I eat cake? Certainly not to lose weight. Why do I drink wine? Certainly not improve my cognition. I do these things because I like them, regardless of their obvious flaws. And I think there’s value in being able to do what I enjoy, even if the things I choose to do could have a negative impact on me, in other ways. I know the effects of eating cake and drinking wine, and I do them anyway — because on my own terms, it’s worth it. Whether or not I think they’re bad for me; whether or not society deems them to be bad. And I shouldn’t be stopped from doing those things — as the old argument goes — as long as I’m not directly harming anyone else.
Sure, there’s another old argument about autonomy and choice that runs along the lines of: what if my “real” choice were actually something else? This is the idea that full autonomy might be something more than simply acting on what you currently consider to be your desires — indeed, that your current “lower” desires may prevent you from being truly liberated. And, sure, that may be true to some extent. It certainly is in the case of those people who aren’t fully responsible for their own decisions — such as children, or people suffering from certain types of mental illness — but while, of course, that’s important to recognise, I’m not talking about those people, here. Rather, to misquote the Spice Girls, maybe I don’t really know what I really really want. But just because I might not know that, doesn’t mean that anyone else — and certainly not the state — knows it any better than I do.
We all make trade-offs all of the time, and that’s life. Sure, sometimes we don’t have perfect information to help us make the most “rational” choice, based on some end goal like “living as long as possible” or “staying thin” or “saving money”, or whatever. But sometimes we do have the information — it’s hard to buy anything, food or otherwise, without a calorie diagram these days — and we still eat the cake, smoke the cigarette, and drink the wine. Why? Because we enjoy those things. So why should I take someone else’s reasoning system, based on the things they value, over mine?
But wait a second, you say. What about the poor people who waste money, the fat people who eat cake, and the stupid people who take risks? Are they still making valuable choices? Well, believe it or not, those afflictions — being poor, fat, and even stupid — don’t necessarily stop you wanting things, knowing what you enjoy, and being able to weigh up how to decide. Inform people as much as you like, but once you try to take away their ability to make choices based on their own reasoning — whether that’s by coercion, bribery, or even just purposefully manipulating the options they can choose from — you’re going to face some pretty serious consequences.
Again, I’d argue that being able to choose is valuable in itself, for each of us — in terms of us exercising our autonomy as human beings with free will. So, taking that away would be wrong. But I’d also argue that it’s valuable in a wider societal sense. It’s increasingly easy to imagine a world in which big decisions are made by algorithms. Not just practical resource-allocation decisions about widgets or box packing, or even those about things like which set of people should get the limited supply of vaccines in the midst of an epidemic, but also decisions related to, say, sentencing criminals, or choosing political representatives. Such a world is scary because there’s something inherently unsettling about non-humans making those kinds of decisions. But it also seems like a world in which real people no longer have much responsibility. And that’s a quick sidestep away from a world lacking in trust, and so many of the other valuable things that depend on individuals making choices that are based on so much more than mathematically-calculable ends-based wins.
Decision-making is complicated, and our so-called “bad” choices are a great way of showing the human ability to know when taking a hit in one sense is worth it in another. Thin people choose to eat cake because they like it. Smart people choose to watch that “Love Island” thing because, somehow, they take some kind of pleasure in it. And so do fat people and stupid people. Refusing to acknowledge the value in people making choices based on their own reasoning sets us on the road to societal destruction.