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I’ll Take Free Choice

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Intellectuals who disdain the common man’s freedom never run out of rationalizations for government control. In a recent New York Times op-ed touting his book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, psychology professor Barry Schwartz criticized political reforms aimed at expanding choice. He argued that “for many people, increased choice can lead to a decrease in satisfaction. Too many options can result in paralysis, not liberation.”

He offered empirical evidence that a large range of choice makes people less happy, not more. For example, he cites research showing that “as the number of flavors of jam or varieties of chocolate available to shoppers is increased, the likelihood that they will leave the store without buying either jam or chocolate goes up.” Schwartz comments: “In cases like these, increased choice often enables people to improve their lives by some objective measure — quality of jam, rate of return on investment, suitability of a job to one’s ultimate career objectives, and so on. But it also makes people feel worse.”

Which leads Schwartz to the question, “Do we care about objective results or subjective results when we’re out to improve the general well-being? I think that once people’s standard of living is above subsistence levels, it is usually the subjective quality of the experience that really matters. And increased choice does not seem to improve the subjective quality of experience.”

So, Schwartz says, government really does us no favors when it gives us more choices in retirement plans, schools, and medical care. We can’t handle it.

There is much to be said against this thesis. First, if choice makes us unhappy, why do so many of us stop patronizing mom-and-pop stores and rush to Wal-Mart the moment we get the chance? The opponents of freedom really must get their stories straight. They decry the little retail shops’ being driven out of business when the “big box” stores open nearby. But here’s Schwartz telling us lots of choices make us unhappy. Which is it, guys?

Moreover, regular people understand that we each have ways to manage a bewildering number of choices. Consumer Reports magazine is one method. A recommendation from a friend is another.

But there’s a more fundamental objection to Schwartz’s argument. The amount of choice we have should be none of the government’s business. Government doesn’t give us choices. It either interferes with free choice or it stays out of the way. To speak in terms of government’s “throwing an ever-greater menu of options at the American people” is to beg the question: should government have the power to constrict peaceful activities in the first place? Government can expand our choices only if it has previously limited them by physical force.

Choice in the marketplace grows out of individual freedom. I want shoes. Many people are free to sell me shoes. That presents me with choices, requiring me to pay attention and to discriminate. What’s the alternative? Government control aimed at limiting choice. Where’s the evidence that that makes people happy?

Schwartz is a professor. If someone were to suggest that too many books, journals, and magazines crowd the shelves, that all this choice makes people unhappy, and that government could serve us better by restricting the number of choices, Schwartz and his ilk would scream like banshees.

So let’s make a deal. The government will interfere with neither the freedom of choice that Schwartz likes nor the kind he cares little for, such as choice in consumer products, retirement plans, medical care, and schools.

Schwartz may believe that “there may be a point when choice tyrannizes people more than it liberates them.” But I’ll take metaphorical tyranny over the real McCoy any day.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.