17 Jun 2021

The complexity of choice

In my previous blog on the real meaning of need, I shared that government policy often makes statements about what people ‘need’, such as numbers of bedrooms etc., but this might not be necessarily what someone would choose. That’s why for my next piece on common philosophical assumptions, I thought I would focus on ‘choice’ – a closely related topic, especially when looking at the housing system.

For the most part, private house buyers have a choice about which house they buy – a much wider choice than social renters, who might be constrained by government policy or the policies of individual social landlords. Buyers' choices are not completely unrestrained of course. One can generally only buy houses which the current owners wish to sell, which are affordable and fit within a specified budget. Nevertheless, a single-person buyer could purchase a house with more space than they would ever need, whereas a renter reliant on the state to pay some of their housing costs would be restrained by size criteria and a limit on what the state says they need.

‘Choice’ is a concept that we perhaps don’t consider enough. It is often portrayed as a quality that we have that can be unleashed by the correct government policy. We can see this now with the government’s focus on home ownership and the recently launched policy measures. Ninety-five per cent mortgages, for example, are designed to provide the funds for people to be able to choose and buy a house they would otherwise not be able to afford.

But choices are much more complex

Choice has a strong moral component. Where we have limited resources to distribute, be it money, houses, or something else, we need some way of choosing who deserves it more. This is essentially what allocations policies do – they set out the criteria by which social landlords decide who needs a house more. Likewise, these policies can also be used to limit choice. It's not unusual for local authorities to limit homeless applicants to two or even one offer of housing – meaning they must accept what they are offered; choice is removed because of the urgency of the situation.

So, when is it appropriate to be able to choose?

Clearly from the example above, it might be argued that there are occasions when it is acceptable to remove choice altogether. It might equally be argued that ‘choice’ should be the default setting, and this should only be limited in extreme circumstances.

I recently read a paper from the London School of Economics (LSE) which suggested that not only is choice an instrumental good, it enables us to better our lives through exercise of choice; but also, a ‘merit good’. That is to say that the ability to make choices about our lives is a good thing in and of itself. Being able to make choices about our lives empowers us and enables us to learn from our bad choices and make better ones. It provides an experience that otherwise we would not have. It also enables us to ‘own’ the choices that we make and control our own lives – and this is a good thing regardless of the outcomes of our choices.

The line between making good choices and enjoying good outcomes is not linear of course. In our lives, I can bet that we have all made what we thought was a good choice, only to have it backfire and not deliver the outcomes we expected. Does that mean it was a bad choice?

To make good choices, we need good information, and we arguably have better information now than we ever have thanks to the internet. Websites like TripAdvisor allow us to look up reviews about hotels and restaurants; comparison sites provide easy access to a range of financial products – this can empower us to make better choices. Perhaps it is more helpful to think of making ‘rational’ choices rather than ‘good’ choices? A rational choice being the best option available given the circumstances we are in, and the information we have available to us.

Thinking in terms of rationality breaks the conceptual link between good choices and good outcomes. The rational choice is, in effect, the good choice even though it may not lead to a positive outcome.

Written by Yoric Irving-Clarke

Yoric Irving-Clarke a policy and practice officer at the Chartered Institute of Housing. He leads on homelessness and domestic abuse in the CIH policy team. Yoric is a chartered CIH member.