Tue, 10 May 2005

Barry Schwartz, Master Chooser

Our own Russell Roberts was just on NPR's Morning Edition, posed against Barry Schwartz, on the topic, more or less, of whether people should be allowed to choose how their retirement is invested, or whether the federal government should choose it by spending social security taxes in their name.

Barry, predictably, came out against choice. I say "predictably" because of his book The Paradox of Choice, which he has been trotting out whenever possible. The point that (unfortunately) Russell didn't push very hard, and which Barry cannot defend against, is that the choices that Barry dislikes all exist as possibilities. If the spectrum of choices is to be narrowed for the sake of people's mental health, who is to choose which possibilities will go and which will remain?

If we are to have fewer choices, those possibilities will have to not exist. Somebody will have to choose which possibilities don't exist. Who will that be? Barry Schwartz, Master Chooser? What makes him so smart? What makes him so mentally stable, so able to resist the pressure of all those choices, that he will be able to choose when I cannot? I agree with Barry that choices are hard to make, but I learned this very early on in life: if you find a choice hard, then you don't know enough to distinguish between the choices. You should either learn more about the choices, or else decide that the cost of learning exceeds the value of the choice, pick one of the choices that all appear the same, and move on. Regrets? They're foolish, silly, and immature. Move on. Mistakes? Inevitable; you're a human; that's what we do. Move on.

In essence, Barry is arguing for the infantilization of American society. We protect our children from many choices because they lack the knowledge necessary to choose. That's foolish. Teach your children to choose! That's why you exist, as a parent, and your goal should be to stop being a parent as soon as reasonable. We don't want a society of children, we want a society of clear-thinking, responsible adults.

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