TCS Daily


Choice and Its Enemies

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - April 19, 2005 12:00 AM

H.L. Mencken famously defined Puritanism as "the haunting fear that someone somewhere may be happy." Being a libertarian-conservative means being possessed of the haunting fear that someone somewhere is itching to play busybody on a level one might have once thought was inconceivable.

That fear becomes justified when one reads articles like this one by the New York Times ("Choice is Good, Yes, No or Maybe?"), which informs us that there is a movement afoot to limit our choices as consumers and citizens. You see, the fear is that we may not have the capacity to "choose properly" or that we may simply "refuse to choose." As a result, "government should limit people's choices. That is, choose for them." This is because "More choice can be worse than less choice," according to Columbia University psychologist Sheena Iyengar.

Given that the article begins by informing us that "choice has claimed a prominent new position as a policy tool: the prescription for everything from improving public schools to paring bloated health care costs to saving Social Security," one can be forgiven for suspecting that this new effort to limit the choices of the citizenry by advancing the premise that the citizenry does not have the capacity to "choose properly" is a political effort designed to take various and sundry policy options -- like "improving public schools" through increased school choice of "saving Social Security" through the introduction of greater personal choice -- off the table. Two advocates of the effort to limit choice -- Richard Thaler, an economist at the University of Chicago and Cass Sunstein, who teaches at the University Of Chicago Law School -- even have a name for this nascent busybody program; "libertarian paternalism." "Libertarian paternalism," according to Professor Thaler, is based on the belief that "[p]eople have to know what their preferences are and they have to know how the options they have map onto their preferences."

It takes an incredible amount of chutzpah to advocate this kind of anti-choice movement while claiming that there is anything "libertarian" about it. On the contrary, the program that Thaler advocates is the very antithesis of the libertarian-conservative belief that consumers deserve to have as wide a variety of options available to them as possible. Of course, one may find a great deal to agree with in Professor Thaler's remark that it helps for people to know what their preferences are. But people like Professor Thaler are apparently entirely willing to set down some kind of arbitrary cutoff period for people to realize their preferences -- after which government will take away some of their choices and tell people what their preferences are or should be. This approach -- along with the resulting belief that if a certain individual is not able to meet Professor Thaler's criteria for being able to make "smart choices" (however Professor Thaler defines the term "smart choices"), that individual ought to have his/her choices limited or taken away -- makes the entire concept of "libertarian paternalism" "inauthentic in a particularly offensive way," in the well-chosen words of Judge Richard Posner, who is mentioned in the article as a critic of this anti-choice position.

Ah, but the "libertarian paternalists" claim to have studies on their side! These studies tell us that 401(k) pension plans see more participation when the choice for the employee is set as an opt-in instead of an opt-out, that in Sweden, an overwhelming majority of people allowed their investment portfolio to "go to a default fund set up by the government instead of choosing one themselves," that people buy more jam when there are less choices, and that people who buy chocolate express more regret when confronted by a panoply of choices than they do when confronted by a smaller choice set.

To which one responds with a hearty "So what?" after, of course, inquiring about that nettlesome issue of correlation constituting causation (which the article does not even address). We already knew that people sometimes make the wrong choices, or that sometimes they block themselves from choosing at all. No one said that the argument in favor of increasing choice rested on the premise that people could and do make perfect choices. To quote economist Don Boudreaux, "Does any respectable school of economics, theory of psychology, or political philosophy rest on the assumption that people choose well always?"

Well, clearly not. But it is a fundamental tenet of those arguing for greater government intervention in our lives that if an anti-government theory does not work perfectly in practice, it does not work at all and government intervention must take place. That is precisely what is happening here. Those who -- like me -- advocate the devolution of power and choice-making to the local and individual level are well aware of the fact that localities and individuals do not always make "perfect" choices (whatever those are). But they do make better choices than a faraway "libertarian paternalist" actor that is not nearly as libertarian as Messrs. Thaler and Sunstein make it out to be.

In short, advocates of individual choice build in the capacity for individual error into our theories. No theory works perfectly, after all. But some work better than others and should be left to continue working. And it is a fundamentally illegitimate method of debate to posit that since a theory does not work perfectly, it ought to be discarded or curtailed.

Responding to "libertarian paternalism," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich remarks that "[i]f you were to walk into a Wal-Mart and say to people, 'Don't you feel really depressed by having 258,000 options; shouldn't it be their obligation to reduce the choice you must endure?' They would think you were nuts." Well, yes, they probably would. But that inability of "libertarian paternalism" to pass the laugh or sanity test has apparently not dampened the enthusiasm of the paternalists themselves in pushing their bizarre theory in respectable academic and political circles. And the depressing thing is that one can probably expect even more of this "libertarian paternalism" to pervade our social and political discourse, as amazingly, we actually have to fight to continue to be able to have access to the many choices that are (for now, anyway) available to us in a Wal-Mart, in our 401(k) plans and in our jam-purchasing forays.

I envy the Puritans. Their fears are small by comparison.

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