In the mainstream debate both for and against a free market, one argument that appears continuously is that the free market is predicated upon choice and the ability of the individual to choose. Those in favour will argue that more choice promotes competition and increases the freedom of the individual to meet his ends, and so the increasing of choice and stifling of monopoly wherever it appears is a good thing. Opponents will counter that choice can be wasteful, costly, inefficient and overwhelming particularly when it concerns supply of provisions as basic as water, and, furthermore, that often the appearance of choice is merely an illusion conjured up by private companies that basically operate in a profit-maximising cartel.

Wading into this debate as a libertarian we can see that the basic statements on each side are not incorrect. However they either overlook or misunderstand the true nature of choice in a free society. The kernel of truth in the pro-choice argument is that voluntary behaviour, expressed through choice, leads to market outcomes that provide the most benefit to the consumer. But such an advocacy is formal only – people choose voluntarily not only which suppliers they are willing to patronise, but also the extent of choice itself in a particular industry is the outcome of voluntary action. In some industries, for example, particularly those that are growing and innovative, consumers are willing to support multiple suppliers with a large range of different products and all of these may be viable. We might say that smartphone manufacturing is representative of this kind of industry. In other industries, however, which are perhaps maturing or consolidating and reaching the end of their innovative stage, the benefits to be gained from economies of scale and simple and straightforward products with little differentiation might be what consumers desire. This is particularly true of the supply of commodities where the only differentiation is price and the only benefit to consumer can be reduced costs. This kind of supply naturally lends itself to one or only a bare handful of suppliers and choice in such an environment may be reduced to minor differences in customer service but is otherwise likely to be stressful, wasteful and unnecessary.

However, pro-choice advocates often are not arguing in favour of this formal meaning of choice, but rather they assume and press ahead for a choice that is substantive. In other words, for every single industry there must, necessarily, be several suppliers from which a consumer can choose, however basic the product and however costly the splintered operations. We have already examined the economic fallacies of this belief from the point of view of competition law and the shibboleth that increasing competition is always a boon to the consumer. However, it is also a dangerous ruse that can be used to create nominal or illusive choice while preserving an overarching government monopoly or control that allows government favoured private companies to line their pockets, at the same time allowing all of the blame for the waste and inefficiency to be directed not to the governmental element but to the “free market” vestige of the particular industry. In the UK the privatisation frenzy of the Thatcher and Major governments was often justified by the need to give “choice” and “competition” to the consumer. Britain’s railways for example, are now “privatised” and whenever you board a train there will be a private company’s logo emblazoned on the carriage and you will see front line members of staff wearing uniforms that indicate their representation of these private companies. But the track, stations and signalling are wholly owned by Network Rail, a statutory company that has no shareholders and is under the de facto control of the government. The train operations themselves are not subject to the forces of natural competition but are parcelled out by the government into geographical monopoly franchises to private companies chosen by the government and who, with the government’s blessing, are allowed to operate the franchise for a set number of years before they must retender. This cauldron of public and private activity blended together led to the UK’s railways being judged the worst in Europe from the point of view of cost and efficiency in early 2012. Yet it is “privatisation” and “competition”, those fancy public-facing corporate logos on the timetables and uniforms, that are lumbered with the blame, rather than the government string-pulling. The energy industry is just as bad, if not worse. The electricity infrastructure is owned by National Grid, with six dominant, government-licensed suppliers sending their product through the same wires in what is a ridiculously regulated and cost-heavy sector that is not only seeing rising prices for consumers and talk of fuel poverty but is also on the verge of collapse. Indeed the Soviet-style description of the regulatory framework by Energy UK, the industry’s trade association, only scratches the surface but it is a succinct summary:

The electricity and gas markets are regulated by the Gas and Electricity Markets Authority, operating through the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets (Ofgem). Ofgem’s role is to protect the interest of consumers by promoting competition where appropriate. Ofgem issues companies with licences to carry out activities in the electricity and gas sectors, sets the levels of return which the monopoly networks companies can make, and decides on changes to market rules.1

All of this is before we even go near the odious and destructive high street banking cartel.

Given all of this is, is it any surprise that people lay the blame for poor service, for high costs, for inefficiency, for waste, and for private companies lining their pockets at the door of free marketers’ obsession with choice and competition? Is it any surprise that, not realising that it is the underlying control and forcing of substantive choice to the benefit of its favoured friends in “private” industry, that there are calls for renationalisation of public communications networks and utilities? There is a strong case to be argued, not only from the point of view of its danger to the reputation of the free market but also from that of the level of service offered to consumers, that private companies operating government controlled services is often worse than explicit and outright nationalisation.

As libertarians who cherish the free market our devotion to choice is encapsulated by our commitment to voluntary behaviour and interaction and is only a subset of this wider concept. We do not mean a controlled and enforced, substantive choice in every industry, nor do we mean the illusion of choice created by the government that rips off the consumer and leaves the free market to bear the brunt of their ire. Leave the consumers alone entirely to express their preferences through voluntary action. Leave them alone to determine how much choice they want. Only then will we see industries that are genuinely able to meet the needs of consumers with ranges of products that are suitable to their ends at prices that they are able to afford.

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1 Emphasis added.