The Nationalisation Of Individual Choice

Harold Wilson

Many struggle with the apparent contradiction between pursuing one’s quality of life, and saving lives. It is said that we need to stop the world, and stop the pursuance of our own selfish pursuits, for the sole purpose of health.

This is wrong. Health is just one of the many considerations of living individuals. Only individuals know what the costs and benefits of their actions are, and are therefore best placed to choose what to do. Risk is just one such cost; health is just one benefit. Free individual choice is therefore most likely to produce a net benefit.

This is why a free society leaves choice to individuals themselves: it increases the quality of life. Society is the sum of the lives of all those individuals: leaving people free leads to the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people in society. Governments do not have all that knowledge of individuals’ costs and benefits (the philosopher Hayek’s famous Knowledge Problem), and when they supplant individual choice, the outcome is likely to be less beneficial to the population.

Government saying that all other considerations must be shoved aside for the sole and centrally decided pursuance of health is in fact the nationalisation of individual choice. The outcome of this nationalisation is a dramatic decline in the quality of life of the nation. This is what we saw in lockdown countries: suicides, depression, and mental illnesses sky-rocketed. A great unhappiness malaise soon covered the lockdown countries.

Every human behaviour is risky and we cannot abolish risk

One of the main costs when deciding whether to do something or not, is risk (other costs may money, or the effort required, etc). Every behaviour is risky. Some behaviour we are so used to, that we don’t even think about the risk anymore.

Subconsciously we know that the risk of dying when we go out for to buy bread is tiny. And yet walking to the bakery is not risk free: 456 pedestrians die annually from road traffic deaths in the UK. You could say: is it really worth risking my life for a croissant? Shall I go for a walk in the field instead? Each year, about 20 people get killed in incidents with cows. How about bungee jumping? About one person a year is killed. Wowow: too risky. Let’s stay safely home instead and do some DIY. Are you sure? Each year, 250,000 Brits get injured, and about 70 die from DIY-related accidents.

So if we want to cease all risky behaviour which could end in death, we should cease all activity. We should stay in bed all day. Or shouldn’t we? Twenty Brits die tumbling out of their beds every year. So we can agree that ceasing all activity which carries a risk of dying is nonsense: we could do nothing at all anymore. And even doing nothing would cause our death!

And so it is for all lifestyle choices related to health. You can die from smoking, but some individuals still do it, because to them the enjoyment outstrips the cost of potential lung disease of death. When I attended an illegal dinner party during lockdown, there was a risk of being caught and fined, the risk of public opprobrium, and the very theoretical risk that we might transmit the disease, and that eventually somebody far away might die. We were all healthy with no Covid symptoms, under 60, and had no other serious diseases, so we were statistically unlikely to die from Covid. As to third parties somewhere down the line, we were also aware that mortality of COVID-19 was far lower than the alarmist said. None of us had living grandparents in this country. The benefit of the illegal dinner was seeing people after three weeks cooped up alone in our flats, the thrill of the illegality, the good wine and drink, the joyful evening. We decided that for us, the benefit outstripped the risk. Some refused to come: they personally thought the cost too high: they had higher lever of anxiety, were more afraid of getting in trouble with the law, and perhaps took care of a granny who they did not want to infect.

Calculating risk

We will all agree that unless you are fearless, risk is an unpleasant cost. So we try to keep it to a minimum. We all subconsciously have a threshold of risk above which we will not venture. What level of risk we are willing to accept is different for each individual.

Different actions carry different levels of risk. Let’s compare them. It’s a number game, please bear with me.

Say, Russian roulette. Players place a single round in a revolver, spin the cylinder, place the muzzle against their head, and pull the trigger in the hope that the loaded chamber does not fire. There are six cartridges in the revolver, so every time you pull the trigger there is a one in 6 chance that you will die. Highly lethal. I wouldn’t do it; personally I prefer playing cards.

Let’s say we calculate the risk of dying when you walk to the bakery. If it’s too risky, we’ll find another way of procuring bread. Annually 456 pedestrians are killed in road traffic accidents. This is not out of a population of 65 million Brits, as part of those Brits are not mobile (for ease we ignore the non-Brits, e.g. tourists, in this calculation, even though they are part of the 456). Let’s say that theoretically 55 million are pedestrians some of the time. And let us say that those mobile people make about one walk a week to buy something. So that would make about 3 billion  pedestrian walks a year in the UK. Out of those, 456 end up dead. So every time you walk to the bakery to buy a croissant you have a one chance in 6.5 million of ending up dead. Clearly you should continue your walks to the bakery as before, and not play Russian Roulette on your Friday night on the town.

Let’s outlaw high risk nationally

Now that we can calculate the risk of any behaviour, we can make choices, to protect ourselves. But would it not be far more efficient if the government protected us instead?

We could set up a Ministry of Risk, with buildings full of mathematicians and computers calculating the risk of all behaviours. At the end of the calculation all risk is put on the National Risk Register. Then we outlaw all behaviour that is deemed too risky, e.g. where the incidence of death is just too prevalent. The government protects us, we are grateful, and we vote it back in. Is it a surprise that politicians so often want to ‘protect us from harm’ ?

We have a problem though. We are individuals, not groups. Risk is different for every one of us. Every individual is different. It is known that COVID-19 can spread via spit, i.e. while two people talk to each other in close proximity. So extroverts who socialise a lot and chat a lot are more at risk from getting coronavirus. Introverts who prefer their own company, and almost never talk to someone else, are less at risk from getting coronavirus through talking.

Individuals know their own risk best – government can’t

A National Risk Register would never work. The introvert would realise that the Register substantially inflates his actual risk. Say the government imposed masks outdoors to reduce the risk of coronavirus. The introvert will find this cruel punishment because contrary to what the Register says, his behaviour (silence and non-interaction), is not risky at all. He will therefore not take the Register seriously.

Take the closing of gyms during lockdown. Gyms, like other places where many come together in close proximity, were thought to be sites prone to infection. Take Olivia: Olivia is rather shy. She goes to the gym during the quiet hours of the day. She never chats to anyone. She changes clothes, does her routine, showers, changes, and leaves, all in one hour tops. Contrast this with Mike, a buff guy. Mike arrives, chats with the guys in the changing room, ‘partners’ with other people while doing his exercises, struts around, invites another guy to squeeze his biceps, chats with the staff. The closing of the gym because of a risk of catching the virus may be apt for Mike.  Olivia will find the closure grossly unfair on her. When governments introduce ‘one size fits all’ health policies, it will be grossly unfair on part of the population who do not fit the government’s risk profile.

Could the government be more precise in its risk calculations? It would never have the knowledge all those individuals have of their own risk. It is impossible because of the sheer volume of information (Hayek’s ‘Knowledge Problem’). So the calculation would always be hopelessly imprecise. Perhaps the government could legislate differently for different categories of people, say five, from healthy people who are trained and very apt at certain behaviour, to people who are novices and who have other factors making them unsuitable. For the first category the behaviour is legal, for the last category it is forbidden, and if you belong in the three middle categories aspects are forbidden and allowed according to your characteristics. The amount of legislation would be mountainous (think existing legislation times five). It would lead to legal uncertainty, as it would be mooted which individual belongs in which risk category and linked legal permission. And the initial problem has declined, but not gone away: very few individuals would feel that their individual risk corresponds to the risk portrayed in the (only) five categories. Could we legislate for each individual differently? Of course not.

That is why in a free society we generally prefer it that people calculate their own risk and base their choices on their own assessment.

People attach a different value to the reward they obtain in return for risk

The risk or cost of human action is only half the equation. Nobody takes risk for risk’s sake. When you do something it will carry risk, and you decide whether or not you will go ahead, estimating or knowing the benefit you will obtain in return.

We like benefits, it makes us feel good and happy. It increases our quality of life.

Some people choose certain risky sports, because they value the benefit of the thrill highly. I used to work for an MP, who I value very highly for his political views and actions. He rides a big motorbike to go from work to Parliament, sometimes at night, etc. Cyclists and bikers account for nearly four in 10 of all deaths and serious injuries on British roads, a total of 9,740 in 2017 or an average of one bike death or serious injury every hour. This seems high, but must of course be compared to the total number of actual motorcycle rides in that year. However, for argument’s sake, let us assume riding a motorbike is more dangerous than taking the train.

So I used to tell my MP that he really shouldn’t use a motorbike to go home late at night. He of course laughed it off. Because for him the benefits of the thrill and the speed and the freedom dwarfed the risk! At some point he probably considered taking the train instead. The reward would consist of going home with a smaller risk of dying or having an accident en route. The cost would include the price of the train ticket; waiting at the train station for the train to arrive; the slowness of the train; the unpleasantness of overcrowding; and the heat. For him the motorbike worked best according to the personal value he attached to costs and benefits.

I, as an outsider, would assess his costs and benefits differently. I would attach great value to him being alive and unharmed and continuing to be an excellent MP. I would not necessarily know how good a motorbike rider he is. I could see some of the costs to him for using the train instead. But could I correctly evaluate the relative benefit and costs for him? Of course not. I could perhaps approximate them, as I knew him well. But contrast this with complete strangers trying to assess and weigh his costs and benefits. That would be almost impossible. The further removed from the person, the less precisely you can guess another person’s costs and benefits. Imagine how imprecise the government’s guess would be!

Free individual choice and quality of life

Individuals are better placed than strangers or the government to assess the costs and benefits, to decide whether or not to take a certain action.

When people do something, and see a net benefit, i.e., when the reward is higher than what they put in, they are happy. When this happens regularly, they will see an improvement in their lives: their quality of life increases. The opposite is true, too. If you have to toil all day and night for days and weeks and years, spend all your savings, never see friends, etc., and at the end of the day the reward is poor, you quality of life has diminished. You will be unhappy. In fact, the cost as compared to benefit in your life may be so out of kilter that you may think your life is no longer worth living. This may result in suicide (we all know that this is often wrong, as your ‘luck’ may return; your reward may increase at some point in the future, but we are not advising on suicide here).

When individuals choose which risk to take for which benefit, the chance of happiness and an increase in their quality of life is greatest

When individuals evaluate their own costs against their own benefits, there is the greatest chance that the net outcome will be positive, because they know their own individual circumstances best. That is beneficial for the whole of society, as ultimately society is the sum of all individuals.

When third parties who know little about them decide for them, the chance of success is smaller, as those third parties will not have all the information. The same is true for government, but even more so: when a government overrules its citizens by assessing their costs and benefits, that assessment is at best based on an educated guess. If it then decides for them on the basis of that assessment, chances of a positive net outcome are lower.

If we extrapolate this to the policies to fight coronavirus, we end up with something like this. John wants to go to the cinema during the pandemic. He will assess the cost: the bus ticket, the weather, the cinema ticket, and the chance of catching the corona given he is 20, healthy, and rather gung-ho and unafraid. He will assess the benefit: seeing this film with his favourite actress the day it is released before his mates; and his general happiness going out into town on a Saturday night, escaping from the daily drudgery. He decides to go.

Instead the government supplants his choice under a country-wide corona policy.

The cost of going to the cinema is centrally assessed: possibly dying from the corona; and contributing to overwhelming the NHS and thereby causing even more deaths. The benefit is staying alive. No other benefits are considered: people can see the film later when the cinemas reopen, or at home via streaming. It is decided to close all cinemas.

John will not be happy. If his happiness is infringed repeatedly on a range of issues and for a long time, his quality of life will sink. He may become depressed and suicidal. Or just wither away. The Government is not interested in John’s well-being in that way: as long as he does not catch the corona (which given his individual situation he would not die from anyway), the Government is happy and will claim success.

Shielding the vulnerable

Many critics of lockdown complained how their quality of life was reduced. Lockdown supporters would invariably riposte with utterances like “how many people need to die for your comfort”.

Governments thought they were delivering sterling work to protect the vulnerable, because they only considered ‘health’ as a factor. They ignored all other factors. Many ‘vulnerable’ people were not pleased as all their other considerations (cost and benefits) were ignored, and their quality of life dramatically reduced.

A friend of mine is young but because of a chronic health condition she is in the high risk category. She understands she needs to shield, but does not support the lockdown of the whole of society, and not meeting other people, which she sees as too high a cost. My own mother is eighty and at risk, but told me: “What is the point of growing old if you cannot see anybody?” In other words, her quality of life had reduced so dramatically that she had doubt whether it was worth it for the avoidance of risk.

The nationalisation of individual behavioural decisions

When governments introduced strong lockdowns, in some cases putting the army in the streets, they nationalised what previously had been individual decisions as to how people wish to lead their lives. Instead of you deciding what actions to take, given the costs and benefits that are so intimately known to you, the state would do it for you.

There were four arguments to supplant free individual choice by government rules: the ‘unknown new threat’; to ‘protect others’; the benefit of collective action, and the ignorance of the population. All four are well known to anyone who has ever studied totalitarian regimes.

  1. An unknown new threat

It was said that we had a new unknown killer disease at hand, which we did not yet fully understand. A number of us were asymptomatic carriers who had the disease, who showed no symptoms, and who were spreading it. Because of all these unknowns, individual could not properly assess the risk to themselves and others, and therefore they should follow government rules. If nothing else, because of the precautionary principle: if you are uncertain, do it anyway, ‘just in case’.

Early on people were aware that the disease was new, that we didn’t know everything about it, and that there were asymptomatic carriers. This lack of information made the disease more scary, not less so. Instead of underestimating the risk, people overestimated it. People were careful, even before the strict government measures were introduced. The streets were empty before lockdown. We still see this in countries without lockdown: people are careful. Their economies suffer less, but suffers too, because people exercise restraint when they act. But people there still have the choice to occasionally decide that a slight increase in risk is worth it for the benefit achieved.

Instead of letting the overscared population decide what to do and what not to do, centralised rules cruelly decided that grannies could not see their grandchildren – completely ignoring that the cost/benefit to decide any human behaviour is different for every individual.

  1. ‘To protect others’

Saying that the state needs to interfere to make sure that people not just think about themselves, but also protect others, is the polite version of: “If left to their own devises, people will go out and infect and thus kill others”. It assumes that people are inherently uncaring and bad, and need the enlightened guidance of government to steer them onto the right path. And there need to be fines to force you to do it.

This stems from a very pessimistic view of humanity. With the exception of psychopaths and some people with certain mental disabilities and perhaps newborns and infants, virtually every person has some conscience, and cares for others. Obviously, one cares most for those closest to him, as it is easiest to relate to them. No, people are not inherently bad. When people assess the costs of their actions, they will generally also include the cost to others, as most people do not want to cause harm. There are levels of empathy, and some have far less of it than others, but those who have a surplus usually more than make up for those with a shortfall. Private charity is an example of the inherent goodness of individuals. When the state takes over protecting others, private voluntary charity often withers. In countries where the size of government is huge, private charity is small.

  1. ‘Together we will conquer this’

The idea that by ‘working together’ we achieve more is widespread. Many don’t like the messiness of every individual doing ‘his own thing in his own interest’. This is underestimating the value of individuals making their own choices according to their costs and benefits. As we saw above, individual choice has the greatest chance of achieving an individual positive outcome. If repeated, it will increase the quality of life of the individual. If all individuals in a nation are allowed to do this, the sum total with create far greater increase in the quality of life than if the state supplants it with central decisions based on inadequate information. The achievement of a free country is the sum of all the achievements of its free individuals.

When collectivists say that we need to work together, what they mean is that they believe some individuals would make the wrong choices if left to their own devices. The collectivists think that the collective choices (i.e. the choices of those in charge) are better than the individual choices.

Now that may be so, but chance are that it is not. If only one course of action is decided, and that course of action is wrong, the consequence is infinitely worse than if some individuals make the right, and others the wrong decisions. Also if only one decision is allowed, it will never become clearer whether there wasn’t a better alternative solution.

During the pandemic many voices said that the World Health Organisation should have teeth to impose health policies upon all the countries of the world; that it should have been a sort World Public Health Authority. “Working together, instead of each for himself”, would work so much better. Sounds attractive, right?

If a world government had decided that severe lockdown with abolition of civil liberties was the right solution, we would have had a world economic catastrophe, perpetual new waves of cases, and an extreme fall in the quality of life of the world’s population. Instead different countries and different regions tried out a number of different routes, and some were shown to be more effective than others, and we can learn from that. That is how competition works: it shows what works better so we can follow it.

It is the same within a countries. When millions of individuals all freely decide their own course of action under a pandemic, the outcome is likely to show a wide variety of outcomes, some positive, some negative. Seeing what works and what doesn’t can then advance our pandemic response by imitation the right behaviour, and ditching the wrong ones.

It is fairly typical that those in power, or the conceited who believe they know best, do not like multiplicity of choice. They honestly believe that their centralised choices would produce better outcomes. Generally they don’t: letting individuals free to their own devices steers to a higher quality of life than the collectivist one-dimensional approach.

  1. Ignorance of the people

Usually this argument for government overruling individual choice is swaddled in woolly expressions like ‘absence of information’ or ‘in an increasingly complex world’. Experts and scientists need to steer us, as they know best. What they mean is that people are stupid.

Again, this belief shows an extremely low opinion of humanity. But contrary to the interventionists’ beliefs, even very simple people are aware of the basic tenets of contagious diseases. Most on this planet have had a cold at some point. Most on the planet know that when somebody is ill, and it appears contagious, it may not be a good idea to come too close. Most know that hand washing is quite a good little idea. You do not have to make hand washing compulsory by law. It was evidence of conceit and disdain when Westminster City Council installed a stall on Leicester Square during the pandemic to explain to people how to wash their hands. You do not have to micromanage all human behaviour because you believe yourself so superior that you have to tell everybody what to do in the greatest detail, not allowing for the smallest scintilla of free choice. It was interesting to see how certain parts of the more conceited media complained that the government rules were not clear and detailed enough: no leeway was to be left to the stupid people!

This point of ‘people are stupid’ came particularly to the fore when lockdown supporters started calling those breaching the rules ‘Covidiots’. The lockdown supporters assumed that you were stupid if you did not follow the rules. When all along, people broke the rules because they had a different, individual, valuation of what their costs and benefits were. A wealthy person in a big house with a garden, a swimming pool, and big savings which could support him for years, may not have found the cost of the lockdown too high, for the abstract benefit of ‘saving lives’. A person living in a tiny flat with five family members, no balcony and no money, may have a very different assessment of what the cost of lockdown is, and not be willing to stay out of the public park ‘to save lives’. In fact, it is the lockdown enthusiast who should be called the idiot, for assuming that he knows better than people themselves what their costs and benefits are.

What governments should have done instead

Yes! By all means, let us hear from the experts and the scientists! We should not return to a pre-scientific society based on superstition and prejudice.

But Instead of supplanting people’s individual risk/benefit calculation by central diktat, the government could have made sure that its citizens had better information to take their own decisions. They could have put more emphasis on how contagious COVID-19 was; and what to do to avoid it. They could have suggested who might want to shield, instead of ordering it. They should have advised, but not dictated.

Some more people might have died. But perhaps they would not have been alone in their final months and weeks and days. Perhaps fewer people would have felt so hopeless that they killed themselves. Perhaps fewer people would have become poor, because they would still have had their jobs. Perhaps fewer people would be angry or in despair. Perhaps fewer people would have seen their quality of life tank so dramatically.

I want to end this with a real story. One of the most interesting characters I have met was Stuart Wheeler. He made his money with spread betting and went on to be tremendously influential in British politics by financing the Conservative Party, UKIP, and assorted Eurosceptic causes. He was a jovial man who hosted everybody of note and potential note at his Elizabethan Castle in Kent, which is often featured in period dramas and other Agatha Christie films.

One day during the lockdown, his friends found this e-mail in their inbox:

“As many of you know, I have cancer and my doctors do not expect me to live more than about six months. So what would I prefer – to never see again my and my daughters’ friends? Or to see them, taking the very slight risk of catching the virus from them, which might shorten my life by a few months? The answer is crystal clear to me…”

“No one who, for my sake, declines an invitation to visit us at the castle, is doing me a favour,” he wrote. “On the contrary, by depriving me of their company, they are doing me a great disfavour”.


First published on on September 27, 2020.