The more they talk about ‘choice’, the less we get
Whether it's selecting the sex of their baby or smoking in public, people should have the right to make the 'wrong' choices.
Ask any politician what he is offering us today, and the answer is likely to be ‘choice’ of one sort or another.
As the consumerist ethos extends into the political marketplace, choice has become an all-party buzzword. But as anybody who has tried to choose between the big supermarkets or banks knows, genuine choice can be hard to find in these apparently consumerist times. So it is proving in the world of political and social issues, too.
The more they talk about choice, it seems, the less freedom we have to make our own choices about important things that affect our lives.
Take the decision by the UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to uphold the ban on couples selecting the sex of their baby for ‘social reasons’. The HFEA hid behind public opinion, claiming that its public consultation showed overwhelming opposition to sex selection in the UK. But in previous cases where public opinion has taken a more liberal view, the HFEA has readily gone against the majority to impose a ban on new procedures – see for example the controversy over couples wanting to use IVF techniques to have a child who could help cure a sibling (see Life and death decisions, by Josie Appleton).
The truth is that the HFEA in its wisdom does not think people can be trusted to make the correct choices about their own lives and those of their children. So the experts have to make those choices for us. Nobody has to think sex selection is necessarily a good thing; I cannot imagine choosing that path myself. But why should we deny such choices to others who do think them important? The consequences for society are unlikely to prove catastrophic; all the evidence suggests that there is limited demand for sex selection in the UK, and that people here are as likely to choose a girl as a boy.
A basic distinction seems to have been lost in debates like this: the distinction between disapproving of something, and disallowing it. We should be free to make whatever moral, political or other criticisms we choose of what is happening in society. To some of us, freedom of speech is the most important choice of all. But criticism should not be confused with censorship or bans. The fact that you find something offensive is no good reason to turn it into a criminal offence.
Yet there is powerful trend today to try to outlaw whatever is deemed outlandish. Reactionary opinions branded as racist or homophobic are not just frowned upon or denounced (and rarely debated), but are likely to be investigated, prosecuted or punished. Unfashionable lifestyle choices, ranging from hunting with hounds to smoking in public or eating burgers, attract not only opprobrium but also loud demands for tighter restrictions or regulation.
In a free society, however, people ought to have the right to make the ‘wrong’ choices for themselves, despite the fact that others might disapprove. There is a terrible moral inconsistency about the illiberal liberals who shape many of these debates. Potential parents should be equally free to choose an abortion, or to choose the sex of their baby. Adults should be equally free to follow their religious beliefs, pursue their sexual preferences, or to be a racist homophobe. So long as we are talking about thoughts and words rather than actions, nobody can be compelled not to hate.
The usual qualification on an individual’s freedom to choose is ‘so long as it does no harm to others’. That is an important rider – but not when it involves stretching the meaning of ‘harm’ to mean offending or upsetting others. Even when the ‘no’ lobby dresses up its arguments in the language of science – such as with the questionable campaigns around the dangers of passive smoking or junk food – what it really means is ‘we don’t like what you are doing’. Well, that’s fine, but it’s also tough luck. It is high time we stood up for a more robust attitude towards the giving and taking of offence.
Underlying these powerful anti-choice attitudes is the lack of real choices at the political level. There is no meaningful debate between alternative ideas of the Good Society.
The first parliamentary exchange between Labour prime minister Tony Blair and new Tory opposition leader Michael Howard, hailed as a return to ‘real politics’, was mostly a predictable swapping of insults about what happened in the past. In the here and now, neither offers a compelling vision of a future different from the present. Politics is instead reduced to managing the lives and lifestyle choices of individuals – more about schemes for social engineering than plans for an alternative society.
Ours is an age of consumerist choice in which there is no alternative, a time when illiberal liberalism and intolerant tolerance are the dominant values. All of this is done in the name of defending a civilised society. The foundation of any such society, however, must surely be that we enjoy the status of autonomous adults taking responsibility for our own actions, rather than pathetic cases in need of constant protection from life.
Grown-ups should insist that we can make our own choices, thank you very much. Otherwise we will end up having our life choices selected for us by our self-appointed surrogate parents and moral guardians.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
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