Choice is not enough

Opinion Article

2007 April, 28

Our reform goals in the Cape York Peninsula are much inspired by Amartya Sen, Nobel laureate: for our people to have the capabilities to choose lives they have reasons to value. 


Sen's starting point is the powerful liberal premise of individual choice. Ultimately it is individuals who will determine the kind of life they value. But in order for individuals to have choice, Sen argues, they must have capabilities. Health and education are the most basic capabilities, but political freedom and economic freedom are also essential capabilities. Without capabilities, choice can be a hollow conceit. 


To say that an indigenous child in a remote community, with a history of poor health and possessing minimal education, has the right to choose her life path is nonsense. Her choices have already been made for her: she is predestined to a life removed from participation in the economy and will live in that remote world all of her days. 


If she becomes mobile and moves to an urban centre, she will become part of the underclass. The only exception to this is if she has an artistic talent, in which case she will have entree into a higher-class life, at least temporarily, for as long as the gallery shall laugh. 


Indigenous children will be able to choose their own life path only after they have received the best education and have been protected from ill health and neglect. In a Western welfare state it has become widely accepted that the social provision of opportunity is a responsibility of the government. Citizens are entitled to opportunity and the redistributive mechanisms of the welfare state are about spreading opportunity. 


Even conservatives and liberals have come to accept (perhaps sometimes grudgingly) that individuals in societies such as ours have a right to opportunities. 


But capability is more than just opportunity. I propose that the difference between opportunity and capability is responsibility. Individual citizens may indeed have a right to opportunity, but such opportunity will not become capability without the individual and her family (and community) taking responsibility to convert opportunity into capability. 


It is one thing for the indigenous child to have access to a good school; she will only develop capabilities if her parents and her community fulfil their responsibilities to ensure that she attends every day, after a good night's sleep, after breakfast, and with lunch. As she progresses through life, she will also need to take her own responsibility for the choices she makes. 


The problem of passive welfare in Western welfare states today is more than unequal distribution of opportunity. It is the lack of individual and family responsibility, for you need responsibility to convert opportunity into capability. 


Sen largely overlooks the problem of responsibility failure, because in the Third World circumstances, which were the primary focus of his development thesis, the problem is the shortage of opportunity. 


There is no shortage of individual and family responsibility in the Third World; survival without the kind of social safety net enjoyed by Westerners compels constant responsibility. Passivity and irresponsibility equal starvation. 


There are other influences on individual choice than the question of capability. 


First, economic incentives matter. No humans, be they finance industry money-heads from Sydney or young indigenous people from remote communities, who are the products of poor health and pig-swill publicly provided education, are immune from economic incentive. We must get this straight when we think about indigenous policy: economic incentives influence the choices made by our people. I will not take the discussion of incentives any further here. 


Second, culture matters. Sen was particularly concerned with the clash between culture and individual freedom and development; that traditions can constrain development and that traditional societies are faced with decisions about culture change. 


The extent to which indigenous cultures in Australia are antithetical to reform and development are also inescapable questions for indigenous policy. 


I wish there was more discussion of this within the indigenous community.


Whether social and cultural norms are optimal for the exercise of individual responsibility is a key issue. Immigrants from Asia to Australia and America excel in education. There is no doubt that the cultural norms of Asian-Australians and Asian-Americans - circumscribing the pathways of individuals during their formative years in favour of obedience to parents and teachers, diligence in study, deferred gratification and so on - underpin their success. Narrow pathways in formative years lead to wider choices once capabilities have been developed. 


Conversely, indigenous and other disadvantaged Australians allow broad pathways for their young in their developing years, ending up with narrow choices upon adulthood. I will not take the discussion of culture any further here, except to say that the third influence on individual choice, which is the focus of my concern today - addictions - also involves culture. 


The dynamics and consequences of addiction are insinuated into culture and can make culture extremely problematic. Whereas culture and traditions may not be in opposition to development, when infected by addiction, cultures can become pathological. 


Addictions obviously influence individual choice. Indeed, addictions may more strongly influence individual choices than capabilities, economic incentives or cultural factors. 


Tobacco and alcohol, the growth of gambling and the growing obesity and diabetes problems turn what have hitherto been considered trivial addictions into matters of serious public policy concern. Whether it is useful or accurate to describe the problems driving nutrition-related poor health as involving addiction is, of course, open to debate, but a growing body of evidence suggests that the human brain reacts in a similar way to abuse of the whole range of addictive substances and processes. 


My interest in the full range of addictions - from the accepted ones to the more trivial - is in understanding the role of individual choice in the behaviours that give rise to the problems. It is hard to see how we can have coherent public health policies aimed at tackling nutrition-related health problems without understanding choice and addiction. 


Indeed, it is hard to see how we can have coherent anti-poverty policies without understanding choice and addiction. 


I allege that half of the poverty problem in a rich country such as Australia is behavioural, and it is passivity and addiction that underpin the poverty-inducing and poverty-prolonging behaviour. I further allege that the other half of poverty is structural, and that while this does involve (the traditionally understood) structural economic factors, a large part of the structural problem is the existence of a welfare nomenclature whose job it is to convince everyone - and particularity those languishing in poverty - that poverty has nothing to do with behaviour, choice or addiction. 


The poverty-stricken may not have chosen their condition, and larger structural economic factors may have led to their poverty, but this does not render their present behaviour irrelevant, particularly the choices they make under the influence of the addictions that enthral them. 


Those who yearn for social justice have to think seriously about behaviour, choice and addiction.

Choice is not enough