Stress, nationalisation and choice

Privatisation is often defended as increasing 'choice', a mantra invoked by politicians at every election. But this choice has its downsides, argues Daniel-Joseph MacArthur-Seal
Daniel-Joseph MacArthur-Seal
2 February 2010

After a couple of drinks at our Christmas party, I shocked some of my colleagues here at openDemocracy with my outmoded belief in nationalised utilities and services. I think I am right in saying that most of the openDemocracy editors are committed ‘polyarchists’, a term Tony Curzon Price elucidated in a recent editorial; they don’t like the concentration of power in the hands of anyone, including the state, and my idea of renationalising things like gas and electricity, and more so the virgin prairies of broadband internet, somewhat horrified them. 

My objection to the increasing plethora of choices in the provision of such services does not arise from a closet Stalinism. I personally enjoy deliberating what clothes to buy, and tramp from shop to shop happily. I have little problem with consumerism within the bounds of sustainability, or the purchase of products as constituents of personal or group identity. It’s where a product or service is purely instrumental, rather than an end in itself, that I think nationalisation should be considered with a more open mind.  Generally, you catch a train to get from A to B rather than because you enjoy the snack trolley, use gas to cook or heat your home, use broadband to look at content on the internet etc. The decision-maker generally derives little enjoyment, or utility in Benthamite terms, from the process of making these instrumental choices. Yet with all likelihood, manifestos in the forthcoming UK election will make another raft of pledges to increase the number of such choices we make and the options we have to choose from in each choice situation.

The distorted reality of economic theory has much to answer for, driven as it is by hypotheses and validated by experiments; both prove how predictably choice arrives at the best allocation of resources under a set of circumstances. As a student, I took part in several economic studies to earn some extra money. Each experiment tends to test a single choice; you’re read the rules, and are paid to focus, put other things out of your mind and deliberate for an allotted period of time. In such unnatural and conducive circumstances, it’s not surprising that choice comes up with the goods.

As is often pointed out, the problem of thinking about individual rational decision making is that it fails to account for constraints on rationality – a deficiency that gives life to the important alternative school of behavioural economics. This rightly treats the constraints on human rationality as having a significant impact on choice, but these tend to be understood as variables to be accounted for when devising choice hypotheses where economic efficiency remains the ultimate goal. Economic theory of all hues rarely takes into account the cumulative effect of all the individually rational reforms, innovations, and choices we are offered, either on individuals as choice-makers or on individuals as ends in themselves, as physical and emotional beings.

An important cumulative effect of all these choices is less time and more stress. Rather than going to the station, stepping on to the train and being approached by a conductor selling the only ticket available, the choice regime requires you go to your computer, and search (if the choice regime penetrated further, this single source of impartial information probably would not exist either). But the rail companies often offer better rates on their own websites, so you check which operators run your service. In  some cases there are two, in most one - itself a farcical choice, but not one I would like to see remedied, as a friend informed me a centre right think-tank he worked for had considered, by scheduling the train time table so that three different operators stopped at each platform every fifteen minutes. Then you go to their website, often you have to create an account, on each site the tickets vary in price according to which train you catch, and are far less expensive in advance providing you know exactly which train you want to catch (and if you miss it you pay all over again at the top rate), meaning you have to think all this through even further in advance. If you persist and jump through all these hoops, you are rewarded with savings, and the warm glow of knowing that you are ensuring allocative efficiency.

While theoretically fair, because no one is prevented from making these savings, the real world effect of this choice regime is regressive. If, like most badly-off people, you don’t own your own home, you have to engage in a similar deliberative process with respect to utilities every time you move, which is rather a lot on the short tenancy agreements and uncontracted rents prevalent in the low end of the market. I moved in last September, spent the requisite time deliberating and found I could save money by changing electricity and gas supplier, which took until just before Christmas, and I will be out of here by June – it’s a disincentive, and changing prices and new offers could mean it’s better to go through all this regularly even when staying at the same address. The well off may ignore these opportunities, which could be seized on as an example of their progressive character, since the rich pay more, but given the stress and time saved, such individuals get a far more valuable return in leisure and happiness, the one thing money is not meant to buy. You might save time by using a price comparison website, but then you need several price comparison websites to fulfil the criteria of competition, and you might even want a price comparison website comparison website. By the way, to get the internet to shop around, you need to shop around for the internet, and if you can’t afford the internet and you don’t get the £560 the internet-enabled family willing to jump through these hopes on average saves each year.

Human beings weren’t built for this level of stress. Marshall Sahlins’ important theory on the affluence of hunter gatherer societies dismissed the view that life before urbanisation and industrialisation was, as Hobbes claimed, “nasty, brutish and short”. According to the research he collated, each economically active Dobe tribesman worked on average fifteen hours a week, and thirty five percent of the population didn’t work at all (Britain now faces a pensions crisis due to 16% of the population being over 65 and hence similarly dependent).  What we do aside from the fifteen hours matters, not just on a personal level, but also on a civilisational level.

Stress leads to physical illness; that is a long-held hypothesis and one increasingly backed by medical research. Our lack of free time is also having deleterious consequences on personal and family relationships. Perhaps this is why David Cameron, obsessed as he is with ‘broken Britain’, raised the issue of ‘work-life balance’ in 2006. Unfortunately little has been heard on this front since, and the UK persists in opting out of the EU’s mandatory forty-eight hour week.  Moreover, the rise of the choice agenda has made the equation not as simple as work relative to life, since now when you are not working to make money, you are expected to be thankful for the time you spend trying to save it.

I don’t wish to be patronising: bureaucrats are not better equipped to make choices than individuals. But if we can say that, given the outlined constraints, individuals are more limited in their choice making capacity than liberal economics suggests, I would rather see the bureaucrats paid to make the choices we don’t enjoy making, and for bureaucrats and the rest to have their own free time to spend as they will, rather than leaving the choice making to everyone after work.

One important reason is that the time after work, except for a lucky few, is when we do politics. If less time was spent on routine choice making, when whatever choice we make still takes us from A to B, we might have more time to think what we want B to look like. I suspect that the level of stress in our lives and the number of mundane choices we are forced to agonise over disinterests people in the big choices. Instead, many people spend their remaining time on extreme non-deliberative activities, which perhaps explains why a website where you look at clip after clip of people’s pets doing the stupider things pets do gets twice the traffic openDemocracy does.

If enough time was given to politics, the state could be made more responsive, and more responsible and efficient in the way it ran trains, gas or electricity along with all its other services. Despite not being ‘consumer sovereigns’, citizens could still decide what they want state services to look like given the appropriate channels, and there are many possibilities; one recent idea comes in the form of the cooperative model, which could be applied to the provision of local services. At present, however, the state neglects the cumulative effect of its efficiency driven mechanisms as much as the economists who advocate its dismantling. Going through the benefits system is as infuriating as getting the best priced electricity to the tenth degree and the increasing shift from universal benefits towards targeting the poorest will only bring a greater cumulative burden on the individual. The state’s citizen-facing services, benefits and taxation need simplification, which is why I support a citizen’s income. At present, the centre right, exemplified by Iain Duncan Smith’s proposed cull of benefits, dominates the simplification agenda, which has proved a useful stalking horse for downsizing the public sector. Those who see a strong role for the state in the provision of services and utilities need to acknowledge this challenge and adopt ‘simplicity’, rather than ‘choice’, as the watchword of any election. 

Whatever your objective, reform of the state should be arrived at deliberatively, a method Power 2010’s recent exercise has got a lot more people thinking about. Instead, choice has been the flaunted and uncontested agenda of government and opposition, and the problems arising in its implementation have largely been tolerated as fumbling in a still welcome handover. The choice regime is being implemented, but too few have had any choice in the matter. 

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