Questioning freedom, loathing choice

A strange development of the last few years has been the questioning of freedom by those who feel that most individuals, given the choice, will not behave as they would wish it.

That used to be a perfectly respectable position, shared by thinkers as different as Plato and Lenin.  It is the essential aristocratic (and Leninist) assumption:  that people are too ignorant or weak to make the correct life choices, and must be guided by “the best,” who may be bluebloods or philosophical guardians or the vanguard of some historical force.  Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaida’s number-two man, has endorsed the proposition that freedom’s just another word for allowing ourselves to behave as brutes.

These viewpoints are wrong, but they are reasoned.  The questioning I mentioned above seems to be of a different nature.  It reflects the hostility of many people with democratic and market outcomes.  Google “vote fraud 2004 presidential elections” and you get 1,400,000 hits.

Despite warnings from progressives such as William Galston, many in the U.S. and Europe have rejected the legitimacy of the democratic elections held in Iraq, and refused to support the President – who, to these particular folks, is something akin to the Beast of the Apocalypse – as he seeks to implement his freedom policy in the Middle East and elsewhere.  An electoral loss discredits democracy; disagreement with the majority disproves the value of freedom.

Now, according to Virginia Postrel’s article in Reason Online, a new critique has been developed by those who loathe market economies.  Too many choices, they claim, make us unhappy.

“As the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear,” writes Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice, published in January 2004. “As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize.”

And indeed, there are experiments that show the human mind works best with a handful of possibilities to choose from:  five or six at most.  Schwartz’s point is that the marketplace, by overloading the capabilities of our nervous system, generates stress and unhappiness rather than satisfaction.

But this is just shoddy logic.  In life, we don’t contemplate and weigh every one of the potentially infinite moves available to us.  We just get on with it.  Similarly, in a pluralistic democracy, we apply our limited capacity for choice in widely different ways.

There should be no mistaking this fact:  choice is freedom.  Access to individual choices is the fundamental requirement of democracy, pluralism, and the marketplace.  Those who reject a multiplicity of choice from a distaste of the markets, as Postrel observes, assume with al-Zawahiri that the individual will behave morally only under limitation and compulsion.

Ultimately, the debate about choice is not about markets but about character. Liberty and responsibility really do go together; it’s not just a platitude. The more freedom we have to control our lives, the more responsibility we have for how they turn out. In a world of constraints, learning to be happy with what you’re given is a virtue. In a world of choices, virtue comes from learning to make commitments without regrets. And commitment, in turn, requires self-confidence and self-knowledge.


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