Liberal politicians misunderstanding “free choice”

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I am now on the train back from Amsterdam to London. I have spent the past for days on the European ALDE (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats) Party Congress in Amsterdam. I agree to a certain extent with liberal ideas about free choice and wholeheartedly embrace liberal values such as LGBT rights. However, I was quite annoyed at some of the politicians. During a panel discussion about the EU Common Agriculture Policy and the future of sustainable agriculture, I asked the politicians what they thought would be good solutions to decrease meat consumption. One of the politicians, MEP Jan Huitema from VVD replied that as a liberal, he is opposed to anyone else interfering with his free choice of what to eat. He also said that even though meat consumption does have a high environmental footprint, so does flying to Japan and the government should not restrict that either.

I think his reply showed that he completely missed the point. People can only have a free choice if they are offered an alternative. At the ALDE Congress, there was one evening NO meatless food available. The only meatless option was tiny pieces of cheese, and then I got offered a chicken sandwich from which they had removed the chicken. If the choice people are offered is between plain bread and a chicken sandwich, I do not blame people for choosing to eat the meat. To be honest, I do not care so much that I did not have food to eat, I just went to the supermarket and problem solved. However, I do really care about this on a larger scale. How can we encourage people to make the free choice of eating less meat, if you literally do not offer them any vegetarian food? How can we expect people to choose vegetarian food, if we do not make sure that our chefs are trained to be able to prepare delicious vegetarian food?

As for his comment about flights to Japan. I do not believe the government should fully forbid that either, but I do believe the government can play an important role in decreasing flight emissions too. If people are presented with a good choice, they will sometimes also choose not to fly. At the moment, I am sitting on the Eurostar train. I went to the conference with a team of four and can proudly say that we all took the train there and back, instead of flying. I was very active in buying the train tickets for my whole team. Luckily I have a manager who was very supportive of us taking the train, once I had showed her that it would not take more time and it would not cost more money. This shows that by being proactive, you can also impact your workplace to become more sustainable! Don’t just blame bad practices on your workplace, your manmagers or your colleagues. You can take initiatives to decrease paper use, take trains instead of flights for business trips and recycle at work.

Most people will choose to good if you give them a good choice, the right price and the motivation. But that better choice needs to be provided, one way or another. Offering people better alternatives is what gives them a real choice, it is not in any way restricting. That is what MEP Jan Huitema clearly fails to understand.

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