One of the most-commonly words used in this election season is ‘choice.’ The whole of the democratic system relies on people having a genuine choice for who they vote for, but beyond that, the various parties – and the Conservative party in particular – are keen to promote a ‘choice’ agenda in their manifestos too – see for example a Tory piece on education: ‘the more choice parents have, the better.‘
I think we need to be very careful here. For every parent to have a ‘choice’ about which school they could send their child to would have to mean surplus capacity (ie wasted capacity), and this would cost enormous amounts of money. Choice about which hospital you are treated in results in the same thing – a requirement for surplus capacity.
Our democracy is built on us having a ‘free’ choice, and yet that choice is actually quite restricted in a number of ways. Firstly, one needs to be able to stump up a £500 deposit in order to stand as a candidate. This is refunded if you get more than a certain number of votes. Clearly this is a moderate bar to standing for election, but more seriously is the pressure put on people not to ‘waste their votes’ by voting for someone other than a candidate from the three main parties. Indeed, in some constituencies, our free choice is boiled down to two parties – because voting for the third main party would split the vote and hand power to one of the two larger ones.
Democracy, what is meant to be our free choice for who represents us, is thus reduced to something a long way from a free choice. In the US, the situation is even worse: there are just two parties to ‘choose’ from.
But despite this narrow version of democracy, we fight tooth and nail to export it to all corners of the earth. While voter turn-outs in our own countries dwindle, we send troops out to ensure that other peoples use this system to organise their affairs too.
One good friend has already declared that he intends to not vote at all this election – and already a groundswell of ‘Don’tVote‘ tweeters are gathering support. I’m not convinced that this will result in a better system – but I am highly skeptical of the claims made for our democracy and the fetishisation of ‘choice’ that we are seeing. ‘Choice’ is being sold as a huge carrot to the electorate because it gives the impression of having some real power. But I think this is actually a fallacy.
To address this, it’s to some thoughts about choice from Zizek’s First As Tragedy, Then As Farce that I want to turn in the next post.