The Government should focus on quality of life and sustainability, not economic growth and consumption, a report by a Labour think-tank says.
The Fabian Society warns that expanding the range of choices available for private consumption can often deprive individuals of other choices which may make them better off.
It is now urging the Government to downgrade the principle of consumer choice in economic policy and in the reform of public services.
Public goods often provide greater quality of life benefits, as well as being more environmentally sustainable, the report says.
A Better Choice of Choice, by Roger Levett and others, argues that private consumption is not a guarantor of liberty. However many brands of toothpaste, sausages or cars private consumers can buy, individuals are not free to choose public goods which require regulation or public provision – such as clean air, uncongested streets, sustainable agricultural systems, safer communities, or good schools.
The report argues that these can only be made available through collective action under the democratic decisions of government.
Focusing policy on consumer choice can actually reduce the quality of goods and services available, the report says.
The Fabian report has been written for the Government’s advisory body the Sustainable Development Commission.
Citing evidence that rising GDP is now associated with declining wellbeing, it argues that economic policy should no longer aim at increasing economic growth as measured by GDP, but should use more direct measures of quality of life and environmental sustainability.
Roger Levett said: ‘The taboo on political discussion of consumption needs to be broken. Improving the quality of people’s lives does not automatically mean increasing their consumption. Consumer choice sounds like you could not be against it. But actually many market choices on offer are relatively trivial, while vital alternative choices which could improve the quality of life are not available at all. We must not let the rhetoric of ‘consumer choice’ obscure the bigger choices facing us as citizens and voters, which require government to act.’
Michael Jacobs, General Secretary of the Fabian Society, said: “Government policies for sustainable development have been mainly aimed at increasing the ‘resource productivity’ or ‘eco-efficiency’ of the economy through technological innovation. But improvements in efficiency are being cancelled out by economic growth – caused in part by those very efficiency gains.
“The result is that for key environmental impacts we are at best running to stand still. There is no escape from the conclusion, however politically difficult, that consumption must be addressed. This report is an attempt to provide an intelligent path through the minefield. However controversial its conclusions, I think the debate will be welcomed by everyone who thinks about sustainable development and the purpose of economic and public policy.”