Liberal thinkers are right about power of choice

Opinion Article

2011 May, 28

Choice is a power. It is a power for development and progress, starting with individuals and their families and adding up to social change because social change is ultimately the sum of a whole lot of individual and family changes. 


The further our policy thinking and practical implementation advanced with the Cape York reform agenda, the more it became clear to us the liberals were right about the power of choice. There is no closing the gap on indigenous disadvantage without Adam Smith. 


Our convictions on the application of liberal insights into the challenge of Aboriginal development were hard won. It is not where we started. The paradigm dominating Aboriginal policy was, and still in most part is, socialist in essence. The arguments of the liberals are still nascent in our world. 


For example, self-interest, which is the concomitant of choice, is still considered anathema to Aboriginal policy specifically, and policies aimed at tackling poverty and disadvantage and securing what is now called "social inclusion" generally. 


Leaders and governments still pursue policies aimed at achieving social change and development without factoring in the primary motor of change according to liberal insight, which is selfinterest.


It's like society has mandated governments to design, fund and build an entire transportation system - fleets of family cars and community buses - and not bothered to include the engines. 


In Cape York Peninsula we have come to understand that self-interest is not anathema; it is the correct and indeed natural starting place. Self-interest is not the same as selfishness. Just read Smith.


As well as self-regard, humans also have the facility for other regard. We are not advocating mean individualism; rather, we are waking up to how constrained our people are to securing their interests in enjoying a better life and seizing a better future for our children. 


In our thinking about the power of liberal choice, we became convinced by the gloss contributed by Nobel laureate in economics Amartya Sen, whose insight was that people needed capabilities to choose. These capabilities include the opportunity for good health, education and other social infrastructure, but also political and economic freedoms. 


It is not just a matter of individuals bootstrapping themselves up the road of progress by sheer wisdom of choice. People with strong capabilities make stronger and more meaningful choices. 


It was therefore from Sen that we articulated our policy goal for our people in Cape York: to have the capabilities to choose lives they have reason to value.


It is in the investment in capabilities that social democratic thought is relevant. In our country all of the main political parties support the principle of universal opportunity. While consensus on the importance of opportunity is welcome, there should be vigorous debate about the way opportunity is most effectively provided. 


Governments of all persuasions have been prone to resort to welfarist provisioning that undermines social progress, rather than building capabilities. But let me unpack the idea of choice. 


Choice is often thought of as a right. It surely is. It is the individual right to self-determination, the means of personal empowerment, means to what the psychologists sometimes call self-actualisation: having control over one's life. 


But choice is also a responsibility. You don't just have the right to make your own choices, you also assume responsibility. 


You made the choice, now you own it. You now have a responsibility to make your choice work for you. Take care because you will wear the consequences. And as many times as you make choices that work out, you will fail. You therefore need to learn from the choices you made and try again. 


The notion that choice is a freedom is well understood. You should have as wide a range of choices available to you as society and your own capabilities can provide to you. The greater your capabilities, the more freedom of choice you have. 


The flip side of freedom of choice is an aspect I had not fully appreciated until we reflected upon it: choice is also a discipline. You had the freedom to choose from a wide range of choices, but now you have chosen, and your choice represents a discipline. 


Contemplating your choices was the easy part, now your choice exerts a discipline upon you that is the flip side of freedom. 


This is why allowing people to make their own real choices is more effective than any other approach to individual and social change. When individuals take ownership the change will be sustainable and real. Because choice, properly understood, includes responsibility and discipline. 


The problem with the traditional welfare paradigm is that libertarian welfarism proposed that people should have the right and freedom to make their own choices but not wear the consequences. Here is the social support, there are no conditions attached to it, you are free to do with it as you wish, and if you and your children come to grief we will make sure there is another safety net to tackle that fallout as well.


True choice would mean individuals are indeed free to choose, but the choice must be real. It must imply responsibility as well as right, freedom and discipline. 


Some people may think my endorsement of intervention as inconsistent with my advocacy of choice and freedom. It is not. 


There are certain basic responsibilities individuals must be held to. Social intervention to assist families in crisis and protect children is of course incontrovertible. 


In Cape York we created the precedent that social support should be conditional on basic responsibilities. We hate libertarian welfarism and believe that all welfare should be conditional on responsibility. There is no basis for society to place conditions on privately earned income. But social income support is different. It is part of our social contract, and the contract should be conditional. 


The reason it should be conditional is that in the absence of conditions it creates false choice and false freedom: choice and freedom without the concomitant responsibility and discipline.


Learning of and tasting the power of true choice is when individuals embark on the road of personal and social progress.

Liberal thinkers are right about power of choice