As people around the world grapple with the impacts of mutually-reenforcing economic and health catastrophes, many—especially in countries like the United States which lack basic social services like universal healthcare—are asked to “choose”: to stay home from work; shelter in place; forego public transportation and other crowded spaces; seek (or not seek) medical attention; and facilitate the remote learning of their children. The invocation of choice in this context simultaneously places responsibility for the consequences of decisions on individuals and elides discussion of whether they have access to the basic necessities which would allow them to adopt such measures—like savings, wifi, health coverage, or a safe living environment. Meanwhile, right-wing demonstrators protest stay-at-home orders with slogans like “my body, my risk, my choice.” How do we make sense of the political uses of “choice”?
Here we present an excerpt from Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism, a book which explores the history and common usage of major terms in the everyday language of capitalism. Because the words examined in this volume have successfully infiltrated everyday life in the English-speaking world, their meanings often seem self-evident, even benign. Author John Patrick Leary uncovers the hidden histories and unexpected coinages of words like innovation, best practices, human capital, or, in this case, choice, and discusses the ways in which they shape how we see our world and ourselves.
Many uses of choice in contemporary Anglo-American political discourse tell a story about political and economic power, in which the protagonist is an individual freely weighing options in a rational marketplace. Whether we are talking about the private purchase of some consumer good, or describing political decisions made in the voting booth or in a representative chamber, “choice” has become a word used to describe the practice of freedom.
This has a complex intellectual history, but one point of origin is the conservative “public choice” theory developed by the conservative economist James Buchanan at the University of Virginia between the late 1950s and 1960s, who evaluated political decision-making in terms of the decisions made by individual participants in an economic exchange. If markets (a realm of private choices) and governments (the sphere of public ones) are analogous institutional contexts—as Buchanan argued—then participants in each simply try to maximize their individual advantage. What this means, in short, is that there is no public interest—there are only public choices. And public choices are always market-based choices, which government officials tend to make to protect their monopoly interest in governing and its funding streams in taxation. As Nancy McLean argues in Democracy in Chains, in foregrounding property rights over the public interest in this way, public choice theory lent a modern “moral vocabulary” to a version of political economy that otherwise belonged to the late nineteenth century, when property rights were sacrosanct. Conservatives and liberals alike speak in this vocabulary today when anyone wonders why government cannot be run more like a business, or when its defenders praise the Affordable Care Act (i.e., Obamacare) for facilitating consumers’ ability to choose private insurance plans. The question of whether a person might prefer not to choose at all—might prefer, in other words, to simply use one collective health care program—is foreclosed by a debate that regards individual choice as the horizon of political participation. In the way that we typically use the word politically, more choices are always good, even when you are choosing between opaque and expensive contracts on your own sickness.
An advantage that choice enjoys in political rhetoric derives from its adjectival meanings: “select” or “exquisite.” Consider the phrase “schools of choice” as it is used in states like Michigan, which has embraced “school choice” policy with abandon. A school of choice is a school that accepts pupils who live outside of its local district. A choice school, like a choice autumn apple, is thus a sought-after commodity, and the economic argument for school choice is based on this sense of education as a product in a free market. The familiar argument then follows that competition for parents and pupils, like competition for discerning apple consumers, will drive up quality across the board. Many economists would grant that homo economicus is often an irrational creature, and most fruit lovers would concede that apples available for sale are more often mealy than they are choice. But in the most ideological uses of the market as a model for social and political life, economic choices are exercises in freedom. Whether you are evaluating breakfast cereals, political candidates, health insurance plans, or charter high schools, the ability to choose is ipso facto the freedom to choose, regardless of the conditions that determine the choices one can make—expensiveness of neighborhood fruit markets, miserableness of candidates, complexity of insurance plans, the distance from home of charter schools, and the residential segregation of metropolitan areas.
This celebration of choice as a virtue in and of itself is captured succinctly by Margaret Thatcher. “Choice,” she told an audience in 1977, “is the essence of ethics: if there were no choice, there would be no ethics, no good, no evil; good and evil have meaning only insofar as man is free to choose.” Individual choice (between, say, private health insurance providers) can be opposed to social responsibility (for a nationalized health system that benefits all). Here, though, Thatcher conflates individual choice with social responsibility, as if they are identical. In a society structured around the wisdom of individual consumer choices, there is no such thing as the people, the community, or as Thatcher famously said, society—there are only individuals, whose responsibility is to themselves. And thus, when you are “free” to choose a health plan or your child’s charter high school, you become responsible for the results. This freedom is a particularly cynical ruse, since such “choices” quickly become compulsory.
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