That shrinking feeling

Our obsession with choice in everything obscures a reduction in real freedom

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On Wednesday a car worker from Newcastle went to an auction room and bid pounds 94 for 12 inches of plastic. Christmas was a week away; Buzz Lightyear was the toy to have; this was the last one left for sale in the city; Harry Meers snapped it up. Later, he posed for press photographers beside the tiny firm-jawed astronaut, hoping still to surprise his daughter. The spaceman's official retail price was pounds 24.99.

About now, deep into the scramble for this year's Transformers or Cabbage Patch Dolls or Tickle-Me Elmo's, consumer choice can seem rather theoretical. The dangle of new products, the blare of advertising, the peer-driven appetites of children - as these year-round pressures climax, the option for parents is rarely what to buy, let alone whether to. Ability to pay is swept away. The same day that Mr Meers bought his Buzz, a marketing survey showed that Christmas spending on presents for children is highest in the poorest parts of Britain. Parents in Easington in Durham, the most deprived borough in the country spend an average of pounds 99 per child; in Kensington and Chelsea, the richest, they spend pounds 54.

The odd charity may worry. But the notion of consumer choice as entirely benign survives such seasonal anxieties. Nearly every political party is agreed on this. Choice is energising, natural, democratic and infinitely desirable to those who lack it - the thing that brought the Berlin Wall down. It is extending, and must be extended further, beyond the toy shops and into hospitals, railways, schools and every restrictive service of the state. The ideal modern citizen is an intelligent consumer, striding a kind of universal High Street, absorbing the choices on offer and deciding, rationally, between them.

Any visit to an actual high street shows this is fantasy. Consumers do not look very rational: rushing flushed from shop to shop, buying on impulse, and on credit - often, the whole point of shopping is as an escape from reason. And this is a fantasy played out against a backdrop of someone else's choosing. That glittering Gucci dress has been designed, manufactured, marketed and distributed - squeezed through the whole long pipeline of international capitalism - at a speed and time to suit everyone except, coincidentally, the customer.

And then the consumer still lacks information. It is in the producer's interest to provide details of price and potential. Other, equally important qualities like finish and durability, the potential dangers of a product even, are rarely explained - it would usually be counter-productive to do so.

Supermarket shelves are stacked with examples. At the beginning of this year, the British chains promised that genetically altered food products would be labelled as such. In particular, the supermarkets were concerned about a new strain of soya, developed by an American company called Monsanto to resist weedkillers. Critics of this process feared that the bacterial gene added to the soya could be a health risk.

In October, however, when the new beans were harvested, Monsanto announced that it was too expensive - for them - to separate out the genetically altered variety from the natural ones they grew alongside. The supermarkets were forced to display all soya as the same, customers to take their chance. Soya beans can be found in two-thirds of processed food products.

Even given adequate facts, consumers need to be able to consider them - to have the time, the confidence, and the expertise. Yet the working week is lengthening, and jobs are in short supply, just as whole new vistas of unfamiliar decision-making - about health and pensions and education - are opening up. The modern citizen has reason to panic.

This is exactly what seems to be happening in schools. Last week, the Audit Commission reported that the Conservatives' attempts to let parents choose for their children had created "gridlock". Schools with good reputations were besieged; schools with bad ones were bleeding pupils; this overcrowding and undercapacity is wasting pounds 100m a year. Parental choice, meanwhile, was no choice at all for the 19 per cent who had failed to secure a place at their favoured school.

It is hardly surprising. The state education system, like other systems of state provision, has finite resources. These are not increased by the offering of "preferences" to all its users. Each parent's choice, therefore, narrows the choices of every other parent.

Of course, some choosers are more equal than others. In 1994 the Institute for Public Policy Research found that "middle-class parents in particular are exploiting the market in education [by] bringing their social and cultural advantages to bear". These parents were more able to drive their children to school; to pay for expensive public transport; to buy private tutoring to help with entrance exams. Less tangibly, they had "the knowledge, skills and contacts ... to manipulate what are increasingly complex systems of choice and recruitment".

Then again, this is a substantial effort to make. The heresy discovered by both the Audit Commission and the IPPR is that at least one parent in 10 is simply refusing to choose. "Working-class parents" in particular, found the IPPR, "are more likely to prefer the local school."

Were schools and opticians' and doctors' surgeries to be of an assured standard, such a preference might well be the norm. Few people like or have the capacity actually to "choose" their GP; they just want to be kept well. Yet reliably high standards of state provision, with their accompanying need to raise taxes, are no longer an option any party offers.

Meanwhile all this compulsory choice raises a suspicion. Could it be that the freedoms so loudly proclaimed for high streets and hospitals are shrinking elsewhere? The modern workplace certainly suggests so: besides demanding more of employees' time, employers increasingly want their "flexibility", or compliance, with whatever tasks are set, whenever they are set. Keystrokes are monitored; office walls removed; unions, generally, discouraged.

Companies are also colonising their workers' leisure time. Drug tests are increasingly required for job applications; such tests rarely differentiate between drugs taken at times affecting job performance, and at other moments altogether. In November, a British television executive called Peter Baker was headhunted for a job at the American network NBC, then rejected when the company doctor considered his out-of-hours drinking "heavy". Many successful corporations, such as Microsoft, operate a drip-feed of officially legitimate activities instead. Employees who play Sunday frisbee on the company campus might just nip indoors to do a few hours' software- checking afterwards.

The state's view of leisure has become equally controlling. In Britain, threatening television programmes and films - last month Crash, this month Lolita - are condemned, cut or banned with a nervous alacrity approaching that of a police state. Under the Criminal Justice Act of 1994, the public broadcast of a specific music (with "repetitive beats") was made illegal. The prohibition of drinking in public, of teenagers going out after dark - this is not the stuff of a calm and liberal country.

Truant children may come to realise that modern choice is not the same as freedom. And even Buzz Lightyear may not always be there for them. He will not be in stock again in Britain until 28 December.

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