One of the prime arguments for introducing business practices, private money and private business into public provision is that it improves choice. British citizens, increasingly referred to as consumers or customers rather than patients, passengers or any other appellation which emphasises the public nature of the provision, supposedly want choices of schools for their children and to go to the “best” hospital or to enjoy the “superior” service coming from private companies with public provision contracts such as those running the railways or utilities such as water or gas.
Take the case of the privatised railways. Before privatisation all a passenger had to do was buy a ticket and get on a train. The only thing the passenger had to consider was whether there was a time or date restriction on the ticket. Now, the passenger has to not merely worry about time and date, but whether he or she is getting on a train run by a particular company – how many people have been on an intercity train when the ticket inspector has got into a dispute with someone who has bought a ticket for the train’s destination but it is the wrong ticket for that particular train? The customer is also besieged by a bewildering array of pricing, far more than was on offer when the railway was state owned.
I doubt whether the average passenger welcomes either the multiplicity of carriers or ticket prices. A person can have too much choice. Human beings want some but not a vast amount, which merely becomes confusing. If you want to travel somewhere you do not want it to be a demanding exercise in both finding out what the cheapest fare is and ensuring that the terms of the ticket are not inadvertently breached.
Does market competition produce greater choice even in a “free market”? There is a good argument to say it does not. The natural tendency of a free market is to produce reduced competition. Governments of all colours in countries which have a large free enterprise component to their economy recognise this by maintaining anti-monopoly legislation. (What are called free market economies are in fact state regulated economies and regulated in the most fundamental way, ie the prevention of increase of market share beyond a certain point).
But anti-monopoly legislation only prevents the worst anti-competitive excesses. There is still very wide scope for anti-competitive forces, especially in capital intensive and technologically advanced industries – think Microsoft and operating systems or airliners in a market of two or three suppliers.
But the process is a general one. Even enterprises which are not innately capital intensive are affected. Retailing is a good example. A hundred years ago department stores were still in their infancy. Supermarkets and shopping Malls unknown. The vast majority of purchases were made from small, privately owned shops or from open air markets. Most of the shops specialised in a narrow trade.
Today we have far fewer shops and markets. Supermarkets and Shopping Malls abound. The chain stores of at most a few dozen companies become ever more pervasive. There are many fewer specialist shops. The private retailer is assaulted from all sides by the large multiple-store retailers and increasingly succumbs as the public is seduced by the immediate temptations of price and convenience without regard to the social long-term consequences of what they do. The privately owned shop does not even have to be in the immediate vicinity of a giant chain store to suffer. It merely has to be within reasonable driving distance of the chain store. The consequence is that the poorer areas of larger towns and cities and country villages and small towns are denuded of their shops. The choice of the poorer residents of such places is tremendously reduced. The wealthier do not of course care about this because it has no direct effect on them. They have the wherewithal to either live in areas well serviced by stores and services or can afford to drive to the large supermarkets or have goods delivered from far afield. Such developments fall within the remit of government. It is not for Government to operate supermarkets but it is within their remit to prevent commercial behaviour which is anti-social.
What constitutes choice anyway? Is it, for example, having more shops offering a smaller range of products or fewer shops offering a greater range of product? In practice fewer shops will mean reduced variety of product as well as service. But what of all the choice in giant supermarkets you say? Do they not have a much greater range of product? Surely they provide more choice. They may provide a greater range in one place but that is all.
The advent of industrial-style agri-farming, the bringing in of increased amounts of imported food from around the world and introduction of new manufactured foods may give the impression of greater choice, but is an illusion. The number of varieties of staple fruits and vegetables has been massively reduced, as have the various breeds of farm animals.
Of course, the providers of anything which sells can always say “If people didn’t want it they wouldn’t buy it”. But that begs the question of what alternatives are available. If only three types of washing powder were available doubtless they would sell massively more than any one brand does now. That does not mean they are more popular merely that people have to have such a product and were forced to buy one of the three brands available. Such restriction of choice is increasingly commonplace . We fool ourselves if we buy into the laissez faire economics = more choice.