There’s a line of dialogue in Jonathan Coe’s new novel, Number 11, in which a character says, “For Roger, it was about welfarism, and having a safety net, and above all,… not being so weighed down by choice all the time, I suppose. He hated choice.”
What sort of person hates choice? Choice is a good thing, surely?
Well, I’m not so sure. Yes, I want to choose what I eat, what I wear, the books I read. I want to choose my friends, my bedtime, my curtains. I really want to be able to choose my government, and I’m quite keen on having a choice about our system of government, our voting system, our constitution.
But the fetishisation of choice has gone way too far. Choose my electricity supplier? What a chore! Choose my broadband supplier? Boring. My postal service? For god’s sake, what was wrong with the old Royal Mail?
What I choose is a reliable service that doesn’t rip me off, but ‘choice’ actually works against that. Choice in certain areas complicates, obfuscates, confuses. It virtually ensures that whatever we get, we get fleeced into the bargain.
Psychological research, inevitably done with a commercial imperative in mind, found that the optimal number of choices for most people was a choice of three. Offer a tasting choice of three flavours of jam in a supermarket, and jam sales go up as people buy the flavour they most enjoyed. Offer a larger number of choices, and jam sales stay flat. Too much choice overwhelms us, and we become passive. We are paralysed by the scale of the decision. There are too many variables to be considered. We can’t be arsed.
I demand a new right to choose. I want us to have a say in where we need a wide range of choices, and where we don’t. Trains, buses, utilities? Schools and hospitals and care homes? Just a good service, please. Films, fashion, sport, art? Let a thousand flowers bloom.
Now, can we have a referendum on that?