The Importance of Individual Choice
“My choice to study here aged 17 with very little spoken English could have been a disaster”
It came as a great surprise to me that Standpoint was interested in what I had to say. The brief was to write about myself. What made me passionate about the work I do — campaigning for a smaller state and greater individual power? Simply put, it is the belief that no one knows better than me what is good for me, what is right for me. By that same token, I can never presume to know what is right for someone else and therefore cannot make choices for someone else. Individual choice is really what it boils down to for me. As long as I’m hurting nobody, the state should leave me in control of my life, my finances, my choices.
I suppose everyone has a story, and mine is this.
Looking back at my childhood, I now know that I had quite an unusual upbringing, though it never felt that way at the time. I was born in Bangladesh to parents of two different faiths who had both decided to keep their respective religions even after their marriage. The Bangladeshi education system doesn’t really accommodate children like me, possibly because mixed-faith marriages are so rare in the country. Religion forms part of the core curriculum and one must start studying it at primary school.
My liberal, idealist parents refused to choose a religion for their six-year-old, and instead set up a school with their friends (like-minded, but not parents of mixed-religion children), following the old style O-level curriculum under the British Council. I could now carry on going to school without having to pledge my allegiance to either one of the two religions I had inherited.
But the problem was teachers, or the lack of them, and also the lack of students. This was an experimental school, more like a tutorial really. Our parents were our teachers, and students — particularly in the higher classes — were a rare thing. My class never had more than four pupils, who started leaving one by one as the O-levels drew nearer. What parent would want their child to be a guinea pig for a school that had never put a pupil through those all-important exams? My own parents, could have been the answer, except that they redeemed themselves by actually letting me decide whether I wanted to enter the mainstream education system or continue with my O-levels, so I was being forced to do nothing against my will.
During the year running up to the exams, I was taught at home by several tutors, most of whom had little experience of the syllabus. I was incredibly lucky to have the most amazing English teacher who provided me with a solid understanding of the language (though I never really spoke English outside lessons until I came to the UK), but I had to teach myself some of the other subjects. The lack of access to a laboratory also meant that I couldn’t study sciences, but that was just the price I had to pay for my own choice.
It became quite clear after the O-levels that it would be nigh-on impossible to carry on my education this way. Also, the political situation in Bangladesh was becoming more uncertain by the day. Because of my parents’ and grandparents’ activism and anti-fundamentalist stance, our family had been under threat on and off my whole life. I’d grown up with threatening telephone calls and our home had been firebombed twice. So when I managed to get a partial scholarship to a sixth-form college in Oxford, my parents decided to pack me off to the UK for my education — an education which was also going to be my inheritance, for which my parents remortgaged our family home, and my lawyer mother, who had spent most of her life doing voluntary work until then, moved to the capital, Dhaka, to take up a full-time job.
Coming over to study in this country with very little spoken English, learning to live on my own — away from home and family at 17 — had its own challenges, but it worked for me. This, the culmination of all my and my parents’ choices, was the best thing that could have happened to me. With the best intention in the world, no one could have planned it for me.
I admit that mine is an unusual story, but my basic point still holds. Every individual is just that — individual. Other than some very basic requirements, everyone will have different needs, priorities, tastes. The state, therefore, can only provide some limited, basic services which will satisfy the needs of all its citizens. If it tries to do any more than that (for which it will inevitably need to grow in size) it will fail to satisfy or cater for a lot of its citizens. And in the process, it will encroach on its citizens’ individual choices. To run a big state, taxes need to be high — much higher than what is required to fund the basic services we really need from the state — leaving less in the pockets of individuals to spend on what is important to them, rather than what the state believes is important to them. At the TaxPayers’ Alliance, we often come across huge state expenditures which no one ever asked for or expected the state to provide. Take the art gallery in West Bromwich, The Public, which cost taxpayers £72 million but had to be closed just five years after it opened because nobody visited it, and was then turned into a sixth-form college for a further £6 million. And that, in my eyes, is where a big state begins to fail individuals. There’s a moral argument there too. We are legally obliged to pay taxes; if we don’t, we go to jail. The state therefore has a moral responsibility to make sure none of that money is wasted and every penny is spent on something for which there is a collective requirement.
It is this thinking that motivates me, gets me to work every morning. I could have made an unmitigated disaster of my life because of my choices. But that would have been my own doing; the responsibility would be mine to put my life back on track. The flipside of that argument is that if I wasn’t allowed to make my own choices and take the risks that I did take, I wouldn’t have had half the opportunities which became available to me. The world wouldn’t have noticed, but a huge part of it would have remained unexplored by me.