From saving to food, we make terrible choices
Smokers know what it is to be regulated. How long before over-eaters suffer similar sanction?
by Will Hutton, Sunday May 14, 2006
Choice is today's big thing, but there is growing uneasiness about where it leads. In two very different ways, our capacity to choose was challenged last week and for very similar reasons. Choice might not always be right.
By voting down a proposal that seemed to have logic, compassion and the cultural consensus in favour of choice on its side, the House of Lords decided that it would not accept the right of the terminally ill to choose to die early. And Mr Blair and Mr Brown sued for peace over the Turner pension plan that will enrol every British worker in a national pensions saving plan. You will have to opt out rather than opt in, which changes the nature of the choice.
Choice is becoming more contested and the ideologists are on the prowl. Economic libertarians, such as the Economist, see this as soft paternalism threatening fundamental liberties. Turner's crime, raged the magazine, is that he is setting up his preferred choice against the choice of individuals.
His proposal, they argued, is a paternalist's sleight of hand and we should be on our guard. As every insurance salesman knows, once sold a saving plan we don't leave. When practised on a national scale by the state, it is a cunning extension of state power, not even justified by a doubling of the numbers who save. The right action is to let people suffer the pain of their choices alongside the rewards of their pleasures.
But, suddenly, the argument has less resonance. Turner is winning in a way impossible even five years ago. There is a growing awareness that we are myopic in the way we make choices and that the abundance of choice that affluence brings is making us unhappy. We seem incapable of making choices in our own best interests and wealth makes the consequences worse.
An intriguing book by Avner Offer, one of Britain's most subtle thinkers about how we live now, champions an alternative to the view of choice, as expressed in the Economist piece. In The Challenge of Affluence, Offer argues that economists (by inference, the magazine) are wrong in the way they think about choice.
The Oxford economic historian marshals an extraordinary array of evidence to demonstrate that the instinct of human beings is to want instant gratification: whether from sex, food, gambling or spending rather than saving, the human animal consistently underestimates the future costs of what he or she is doing in the here and now.
This is hardly news, except to economists who believe human beings rationally calibrate the costs and benefits of any action over time.
The question for all societies, argues Offer, is how to solve this individual tendency to self-destruct, and the answer has generally been to create incentives for self-control. Some are social, such as the stigma that used to be associated with deserting your family; some are regulatory, like controls on gambling. One way or another, society tries to limit bad individual choices.
What makes Offer's thesis original is that he argues that affluence makes self-control even harder and the capacity for individual self-destruction even greater.
Take eating. There is an epidemic of obesity (a fifth of the British are now obese). Waistlines have expanded, airline seats are larger, coffins are too small. More than that, there is unambiguous evidence that obesity diminishes life expectancy and life chances generally.
Yet we are helpless over-eaters. Affluence has brought more to eat that is cheaper, tastier and more readily available. The best way of controlling your food intake is eating in a socially controlled setting, the old system of family meals cooked by women at home. That has been shattered.
Women's entry into the labour market, and men's refusal to take on the cooking role, means that family eating has collapsed as a phenomenon, pushed aside by the supermarket and the microwave. Affluence means that we now spend a quarter of our food budgets on eating out.
The consequence is a profound conflict. Like gamblers, we cannot resist the next tasty snack or extra portion even though we know it will make us fat. We try in vain to slim. We try to exercise, hence the growth in the number of gyms and private trainers. Some binge eat in revolt. Some, mainly women because society values female thinness, become anorexic or suffer from bulimia. Eating disorders are becoming more prevalent. More and more people seeking cosmetic surgery do so for fat reduction.
In vain, economists try to explain this crisis as the result of a collectively rational choice. It is obvious to all but the most obtuse that it is the result of collective myopia; moreover, affluence is making the crisis worse. For Offer, however, there is a ray of hope. Smokers were in the same situation as today's over-eaters but have willingly submitted to greater and greater regulations. Could we go the same way over food?
Last week, Tesco signalled that it had read the runes and offered to label its own products more clearly so that consumers can make better-informed choices over what they buy. But, as Offer argues, even if we know that some item of food is bad for us because we can read its contents in the label, we still go ahead and buy it. To go further, we may need some of what the Economist would disparagingly call 'soft paternalism', and direct supermarkets to locate unhealthy food in the least visited part of the store, thus helping to save us from ourselves.
One of Offer's findings is that women may be better at self-control than men and more aware of the consequences of their actions. Any parent comparing their son's approach to studying for GCSEs against a daughter's will know what Offer means. Many more women than men are now going on to higher education; like obesity, this is threatening to become an epidemic.
Do we stand idly by on all these issues? For the past 20 years, the story has been that nothing must obstruct choice. We still want to choose, but we want safeguards against our own blindness and mistakes, even when the case seems irrefutable. Our culture is now subtly changing.