Friday, December 16, 2005

A Tyrany of Choices?

In one of my many debates with the lefties that surround me, my opponent brought up some supposed psychological research that suggests that people are happiest when there is a perceived limit to the choices available to them. He took from this that free markets aren't all they're cracked up to be. After all, the abundance of choice is one of the reasons to support liberal economic policies. This assertion runs deeply contrary to libertarian thinking, and I'm sure many libertarians would be quick to right off this sort of thing as socialist at best and fascist at worst.

I am also inclined to recoil from such talk. It may, however, be worth while to reexamine the virtue of choice. For this purpose, I'm going to assume that the aforementioned research has some truth to it, though I haven't encountered it myself.

Let's assume, then, that the present abundance of choices in our society do not lead to the same degree of happiness that one would have in a soceity where there was less choice. The first question that comes to mind is how one would go about creating this better society.

In order to limit the choices available to people, someone would have to impose such a limit, and see to it that some sort of system remained in place to sustain these limits. Socialism is certainly one option.

Without delving too deeply into the arguments against and for socialism, I will just state here that there are many reasons to reject socialism, many of which have nothing to do with the matter of choice as such. The main reason is that there is no way from preventing socialism from leading to totalitarianism, because the government is charged with controling all resources, and must thus control virtually all choices individuals make, and because any dissent poses a great threat to the government monopoly over the allocation of resources.

Let us focus, however, on the issue of choice as such, and for the interest of argument submit that, all things being equal, less choice at least can be better than more choice. My responce to this is that, even if this is true, it is relatively meaningless. After all, most would agree that, all things being equal, it is better to have less suffering in the world. The problem is, in matters of government policy, all things are never equal, and one can no less reduce choice in isolation than one can suffering. All government policy, because it relies essentially on coercion, has unintended consequences. In debating this issue as a matter of policy, then, one must discuss the actual consequences any change would induce.

One change resulting from a reduction of choice is an accompanying reduction in the quality of resources which competition brings about. I think most would agree that, even if our choices are to be limited, we have good reason to desire a high standard of quality for the resources we consume.

These argument may not carry much wait for the sort of collectivist utopian for whom I must reiterate these basics principles of economics. Their ultimate assumption, I believe, is that they, or some theoretical benevolent leader, is in a position to decide what's best for the people, and that one thus need not worry about the market's ability to alocate resources, because surely a benevolent dictator or a central commitee can do the same thing without all the waste and the mess.

Over a century of seeing the unfathomable brutality stemming from this assumption has forced many collectivists to tiptoe around their core ideas, and focus more on semantic games and scathing indictments of Walmart et al. It behooves liberal-minded people everywhere to bring such people to face their assuptions, and let them stand the open scrutiny they certainly could not withstand.

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