I don’t usually do requests, but I received a message from dreamingspire asking me to clarify Andy Mayer’s report of my comment that people may not want choice, but choice is the means to give them what they do want, which is good local services.
My comments came in response to a doctor and Lib Dem councillor who commented firstly that the next nearest schools to her were 11 and 12 miles away respectively, so that her choice was in fact limited; and that most people did not want choice, they just wanted “A good, local school.”
In this latter point she was, at least in part, correct – choice is not an end in itself, but a means. The point of choice (and competition, and markets, and all those other scary things that cause Social Democratic stomachs to knot in fear) is that it is the most effective driver in improving standards.
The reason for this is simple, and one that liberals should consider to be a matter of fact: monopolies do not serve their customer’s interests. By comparison, nothing encourages providers to satisfy their customers more than competition, or “freedom of exit” as one might also put it. It is the fact that I can take my money and spend it elsewhere that makes those firms that I patronise continue to struggle to provide the best goods and services available; while others struggle equally hard to woo me with better offers. So for example, my employer has recently expressed its dissatisfaction with the supplier of sandwiches for lunch meetings by switching to another supplier, which is far easier and more efficacious than trying to make the previous supplier change their methods.
And here is where my frustration with the Defenders of the State(/us quo) begins. For the opposition to choice in public services is in the end a belief that citizens should be obliged to utilise public services that are delivered by pubic servants and managed by the government even if that provision is inferior to alternatives that are on offer. Lest my publically-employed readers and colleagues move to quickly to jump to the defence of the public sector, I should add that nothing in that statements implies that public services do or must deliver poorer outcomes for citizens. What I am saying is that if a patient or parent believes that they can access better healthcare or schooling elsewhere, it is the height of arrogance to deny them their freedom to do so.
This was clearly why Nick Clegg told the Manifesto Conference on Saturday that “every patient should have a guarantee of treatment within a specified waiting time - and to drive the NHS to deliver that, everyone should have the right to receive private treatment, paid for by the NHS, if the waiting time’s not met.” This need not divert a single penny of taxpayers’ money from the NHS, if only it is able to deliver prompt treatment, but if the NHS is unable to deliver on that simple requirement then patients should be free to get their treatment elsewhere, rather than being compelled to wait for months or years (often in acute pain or with consequent deleterious effects to their health and wellbeing) for the NHS to be able to deal with them.
Of course, choice will not be exercised by every citizen, and one of the greatest concerns of those opposed to choice is that it will benefit the articulate and the pushy at the expense of the marginalized. But this is not in fact the case at all, for the choice of some is beneficial to all. If I continually go to the same electricity provider or supermarket without ever exercising choice, I still benefit from the freedom of others to choose, which drives all providers to aim to deliver the best. This is so common in private markets as to go largely unremarked. Yet evidence from districts where parents have been given school choice suggests that the same applies to public services, too: the standards of public schools did not fall when the ambitious parents exercises choice and moved their children to private schools; rather, the public schools responded by “upping their game”, improving their own teaching in an attempt to limit the exit of their citizen/customers.
Hence my interjection at the Manifesto Conference: choice raises standards across the board, not just for those exercising their freedom.
But what of our doctor and councilor who lives so far from other schools that she fears that choice in her village is meaningless? Real choice in fact still exists, because she can exit. The example of the Elmgreen School is instructive: dissatisfied parents, rather than tolerating inferior education for their children, exercised their freedom to exit the public system by taking their public money and financing an entirely new school. In their case, it was a novel idea that required the local authority’s permission, but in theory any group of parents could do just that, using their public money to home-educate, or pooling their resources to set up a local school or merely hire teachers to visit them at key times to teach their children.
Choice is too often seen as a Trojan Horse for privatization, but that is a lie spread by those for whom individual as opposed to collective solutions are anathema. Real choice may very well be private, but it just as equally may be public, voluntary, charity, religious, co-operative, self-help or any of a host of other possibilities. As Clegg went on to say, “the state must oversee core standards and entitlements. But once those building blocks are in place, the state must back off and allow the genius of grassroots innovation, diversity and experimentation to take off”
And as for the much-stated assertation that voters do not actually want or care about choice, I will conclude as I did at the conference by reminding readers of what David Bell, the Permanent Secretary at the Department for Children, Schools and Families, once commented: people may say that they do not care about more choice, but just try taking away the choice that they have already been given!