The Paradox of Choice

June 18, 2010

Have you seen this?

Liberals love it because, whether or not this was the speaker's intent, they think it justifies their central planning bullshit. After years on the "to do" pile, I'm finally going to pick this presentation apart.

First, I should say that I don't question his conclusions regarding choice and its relationship to happiness. They ring true. When I used MS Windows, I always worried that I didn't have the absolute best colors and sizes for windows, buttons, etc. because they were endlessly customizable. In Mac OS X, you essentially have two choices. I find it far more relaxing, personally.

As for low expectations being the secret to happiness, an average person gets irritated if they have to park far away from the supermarket because of the extra walking. How would a person confined to a wheelchair feel about walking across that same parking lot? How would a person in the third world feel to shop in a store like that? Expectations are everything.

So, the problem isn't in what he says, but in what he implies we should do with the information.

Schwartz's talk follows a template that liberals use often:

  1. Present the assumption that freedom is desirable only for its practical benefits (like "happiness").
  2. Demonstrate that freedom does not provide a particular benefit.
  3. Conclude that we should eliminate this or that freedom (or at least argue that its elimination wouldn't be a big deal).

The flaw, if it isn't obvious, is the initial assumption. The point of liberty is not happiness. Whether or not it makes us happy is academic. It's something we are all born with, (somewhat ironically) whether we want it or not. No research, no matter how abundant or how accurate, can serve as a basis for eliminating or constricting freedom. Our rights are immutable.

There are numerous studies that link happiness to religion. The same people that pretend to support socialism only out of reluctant deference to "what the research says" would lose their fucking minds if you suggested Christianity be mandatory. It would be First Amendment this and First Amendment that, but the Fifth Amendment? "Well, that's a nice one, but look at this research over here." Uh huh.

Science could discover that people are happier with one arm. Does that mean you can start hacking people's arms off without their consent? Maybe you're thinking "That's different. Taking part of a person's paycheck isn't the same as hacking off an arm." Yes, it is actually. Your arm is protected only by the fact that it's your property and you have exclusive control of what's yours. Property rights are not a tool of oppression to protect wealth. They are the only thing standing between you and assault, murder or rape. To set aside these rights has consequences far beyond money or land. Additionally, if I use my arm all day to earn an income and you take that income, you have no less robbed me of the use of that arm than if you cut it off.

Would we all be happier in a metaphorical fish bowl? Maybe, but no one has the authority to impose such limits on someone else, so it really doesn't matter in the context of public policy.

Aside from the main conclusion being irrelevant, there are a couple of other sections of the talk I want to address.

Schwartz asserts that fewer choices make you feel better because you can blame "the world" when things don't work out. By contrast, with many choices, you blame yourself. There may be some truth to that, but there's a flip-side: If you can blame the world for something, you probably will. It becomes much easier to convince yourself that you can't fix it and just sit on your hands. F. A. Hayek pointed out that when society starts to believe that all of their problems are the fault of some distant, faceless "them", they're reduced to pointing fingers and making demands. No one does anything to actually make things better.

Schwartz also concludes that "there's some magical amount" of choice but concedes that he doesn't know what it is. That's another problem with historical movements toward government control. People tend to decide the government should do something (like create a metaphorical fish bowl), grant the power for them to do it, then expect that the most desirable application of this power will be ironed out later. Without fail, the result is "Hey, guess what! We have the power now, so we're just going to do whatever we want."

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