What Covid-19 Has Shown About Choice

When we know little about a situation, we desire clarity and direction, not freedom and choice.

Dave Olsen

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Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

I — like most — have had a lot of time to think recently.

As an asthma sufferer with vulnerable family members, I made the decision, with great difficulty and regret, to withdraw into quarantine a week before it was enforced in the UK. Taking that decision took a while, and ultimately deprived me of the last few days I would ever spend at school.

When the government directive came — to stay indoors as much as possible and to leave schools — I felt a sense of vindication and encouragement.

What I realised is that the reason why the initial decision was so difficult was that it was a free choice — exactly when I needed a bit of clarity from government.

Freedom and choice have come to underpin our entire society, lifestyle, economy, and politics. Broadly speaking, this makes good sense. Liberty allows you to pursue your short-term and long-term desires as you see fit, and it certainly enables the sort of fulfilment and meaning which we all crave.

Choice is brilliant when you know what you’re doing — food and clothes shopping are good examples. The reasons why we are able to make decent decisions in this regard are threefold.

First, these are regular, frequent choices. We make them a lot, and so we can learn what works well and what doesn’t.

Second, they have good feedback. We know within a couple of days whether we actually made the right decision — did the food taste of excrement, did the jeans fit, and, crucially, did my bank account survive the hit?

Third, these aren’t massively technical decisions. They don’t require any real skill, and what little skill is involved is easily picked up. We are all, instinctively, pretty good at shopping for basics.

These factors, though, are not always present: either some, or all, are often missing.

Let’s take voting as an example. We do it once every few years — infrequent, albeit regular. It involves complex and difficult issues, in which we have little expertise. And the feedback isn’t great either; you often won’t…

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Dave Olsen

Political and policy analysis | Operations Director, politika.org.uk | Student, University of Oxford | twitter.com/dave_olsen16