The market economy, and by extension marketing, derives its validity from the premise that choice is good. The Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek took this idea further and argued that it was only through the exercise of free choice that society can fend off the evil of totalitarianism. His central thesis in The Road to Serfdom is that every intervention to control the market inevitably leads to further intervention, because the unintended consequences of each market intervention are economic distortions, which need correcting. And so we are led down the road to serfdom.
Hayek wrote that in 1944. But we have still not learnt his fundamental lesson: that the road to political hell is paved with good intentions. Instead, we are headed for our own hell in the shape of political correctness, propelled again by the best possible intentions.
Political correctness is the enemy of freedom because it is the enemy of choice. Instead of seeing the process of choosing as a positive good – the essential expression of a free society – it sees choice as discriminatory. To choose one thing is to reject another, and rejection is a harmful, negative act.
The news that an American clinic was helping couples to choose the sex of their babies produced a fashionable response from one expert, who declared: “We know from Nazi Germany that as soon as you decide what sort of child you want to have, you are also deciding what sort of child you don’t want to have.”
Of all the ethical and scientific reasons for objecting to the manipulation of the human reproductive process, the charge of sexism is surely the least grave. Of course, it is true that in preferring a boy you are discriminating against a girl, and vice versa. Perhaps parents should opt for twins, one of each? But then to choose twins is to discriminate against triplets and, worse, to discriminate against the only child, already disadvantaged in the eyes of some.
In today’s repressively liberal climate, to express a preference is to risk rebuke or worse. There can be few more alarming examples than that of Samantha Kershaw, a 17-year-old from Glossop, Derbyshire, who, against Government advice, wants to become a hairdresser. (You may recall that in the last administration both Tessa Jowell, now in charge of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and Baroness Jay, now mercifully, in abeyance, poured scorn on the poverty of ambition of would-be crimpers.) As part of her plan to learn her craft, Miss Kershaw decided to attend a hairdressing course at Tameside Technical College, Ashton-under Lyne. There, she was immediately lured into the trap of exercising choice.
In the circumstances, it was not the sort of choice you might have expected: between cutting or perming, or perhaps between backcombing and highlighting. Instead she was presented with a list of 20 fictitious characters and asked to choose the 12 that she would take to a desert island. The list comprised a shop steward, a shop assistant, a Nigerian doctor, an arthritic grandmother, an ex-Cabinet minister, a coal miner, a black professional footballer, an Army sergeant, a peace campaigner, a barman, a school cook, a pregnant teacher, a jobless traveller, a lollipop lady, a retired joiner, a gay nurse, a physics professor, a bank clerk in a wheelchair, a farm labourer and a jazz musician.
Now anyone who had trod life’s stony path for longer than Samantha would have seen straight away the game of political correctness that was being played. To choose 12 from this bizarre list of potential participants in an Islington outreach group would be to discriminate against eight and therefore to invite trouble.
When trouble duly visited itself at Samantha’s door – or, to be precise, at that of her employer Tony Kennah, sole proprietor of Tony’s Hair Design – it arrived in the preposterous shape of Roz Birch, a training coordinator from Tameside Tech. Roz, whose name suggests she comes from central casting, was unhappy with Samantha’s rejection of the gay nurse, the pregnant school teacher, the grandmother with arthritis, and the disabled bank clerk, all of whom, she said, could have been useful on a desert island. (Which is true: the gay nurse could have tended the stricken grandmother while the disabled bank clerk cashed cheques for the pregnant teacher.)
When a startled Mr Kennah, 49, asked what the blankety-blank this had to do with hairdressing, he was told that it was an essential part of a psychological profiling course designed to make students aware of the different types of people in society.
College director of development John Reilly patiently explained, “When someone comes to college to learn about hairdressing they are not being taught about hairdressing. They are learning about the society they live in.”
That makes perfect sense, as long as Mr Reilly accepts that when he goes to the barber’s it is not to have his hair cut but to have his trousers painted.
Meanwhile, those of us who treasure our freedom must defend the right to choose a jazz musician without being accused of discrimating against a suffering grandmother, and to choose a pound of apples with being deemed to have given offence to the pears.