“Choice” is the political buzzword of the day. Recent changes to industrial relations and superannuation law will give us more choice, we are told, as will voluntary student unionism and education and health policies that heavily subsidise private operators. Women - who can work or not, marry or not, have children or not - have more choices than ever before, as do school-leavers who can choose from university, TAFE, overseas travel, full or part-time work.
In fact, it's not uncommon to hear complaints that we have “too much choice,” and on the surface this seems true. Consider how many types of bread you can buy at the local supermarket, how many mobile phone plans are on the market, how many destinations appear in the travel agent’s window, how many cities there are to live in, and how many potential futures there are to choose from.
But when it comes to the things that really matter, freedom of choice is often an illusion. What we actually have is the choice to choose between products and lifestyles that the government has already deemed acceptable.
Take recreational drug use. Most Australians would react with horror to a government ban on alcohol, believing that, as adults, they should be allowed to decide for themselves whether a beer or five after work is a good idea. Yet when it comes to other recreational drugs, most of us accept the government’s ruling that partaking is not only unhealthy but downright criminal. We’re not talking about crimes committed under the influence of drugs, nor about crimes committed in the pursuit of cash to purchase drugs, we’re talking about an adult choosing to ingest a mind or mood-altering substance - this is a crime.
The most common argument made by those advocating an end to the prohibition of recreational drugs is that legalisation allows regulation, thus ensuring the relative safety and affordability of the drugs in question, which in turn reduces drug-related crime and deaths. I happen to agree with this argument, but I also think it’s irrelevant when discussing the issue of individual freedom of choice. The government should not have the right to punish adults who choose to consume alcohol, cigarettes, cocaine, fried food, soft drinks or any other potentially harmful substance.
The choice of adults to use drugs cannot be prevented, only punished after the fact, unlike the choice of a marriage partner which is absolutely constrained by law. In some ways, marriage is full of choice: you can do it at 18 or 80, once, six times or not at all. You can stay married for a couple of days before calling it quits, have an open marriage or keep it 1950s traditional. The one thing you can’t do, however, is choose to marry a person whose sex is the same as yours. A choice that restricts fully half the potential options is not much of a choice at all, really.
As if it isn’t bad enough that the government limits the choices we can make about our lives, they go and remove all choice when it comes to death. To choose a dignified death, surrounded by loved ones over a drawn-out, painful death or a despairing lonely suicide should be the right of every adult. No one has the ability to judge the limits of endurance of another human being or to decide how and when another person should be allowed to die.
At the heart of these restrictive laws is the belief that like a child who will scoff an entire tub of ice-cream if left alone, or a teenager with a contraband bottle of whisky, adults are unable to determine when enough is enough. We, the public, are not clever or informed enough to choose how to treat our own bodies, who to share our lives with and how to make a final exit, and so the state must make these decisions for us.
Of course, there must be a limit to the choices individuals living in a society should have, and that limit is this: no one has the choice to threaten another person’s life, liberty or property. You can’t choose to shoot me or help yourself to my wallet, and I can’t choose to slap your child or lock you in my basement. But beyond the “harm no one” edict, we should be free to live as we please, because without the right to moral autonomy, without the right to be reckless, passionate, brave, unconventional or even plain stupid - all the other choices are meaningless.