The politics of the paradox of choice

Yesterday, I wrote about Barry Schwartz’s book The Paradox of Choice.  In looking for further discussion of this book on the internet, I found a PSB Newshour interview with Schwartz from last year, in which discusses some of the political implications of his argument.

The interviewer explains "Now, politically Barry Schwartz is a liberal who finds himself running against what seems to be the tide these days, more choice for every citizen: The private Social Security accounts that President George W. Bush has pushed, for example, where we would decide how to invest our own money."  In fact, the Bush Administration supports increased consumer choice as the solution to everything from health insurance to primary education, to social security, to job training (they’ve proposed giving unemployed workers vouchers that could be used for job training — or taken as cash if they get jobs quickly).

And then Schwartz says:

"People don’t have the resources, the intellectual resources, the time to learn enough in all of these different areas of life to make wise decisions. The point of public policy, seems to me, is to improve welfare.

"But who decides what’s in someone’s best interest? And the answer that we have collectively embraced, driven, I think, largely by economists is maximizing choice is the way to promote public welfare."

I have very mixed reactions to this statement.  When I think about health insurance, and social security, I tend to agree with Schwartz.  I think about how much trouble I have figuring out what is the best health insurance option for my family — as a person with access to all sorts of information, and the time to sort it out, and a graduate degree in public policy — and I find it hard to believe that there are a lot of people who are going to find it much easier, while I’m quite sure that there are people who will find it much harder. 

But I’m also vehemently pro-choice.  And, as my father asked (rhetorically, of course) this evening, how come Democrats are only pro-choice when it comes to abortion and not when it comes to anything else?  And he’s right, there’s something fundamentally inconsistent about saying that we trust women — all women — to make the best decisions for themselves and their families regarding abortion, but not regarding where to send their kids to school.  Or how to save for their retirement.

(Note that rejecting Schwartz’ argument doesn’t mean that you have to support these proposals; there’s a separate problem that most of these proposals deliberately eliminate the risk pooling that is inherent in the current systems.)

2 Responses to “The politics of the paradox of choice”

  1. bitchphd Says:

    I would say the distinction is between a choice that one can make or not make (if a woman gets pregnant, she doesn’t *have* to choose between keeping it and aborting it: if she does nothing, the pregnancy will progress), and a choice that one is forced into making (you do *have* to choose a health plan, unless there is a default plan). So, I would say, letting people choose different schools or whatever is a pretty decent idea; but it shouldn’t come at the expense of providing a good default situation so that people aren’t forced to spend hours agonizing over their choice. People do also get to choose how to save for their retirement: social security doesn’t prevent people from making those choices, it merely requires everyone to pay into a minimal, basic, default system that will eventually pay us back (unless we decide to fuck it up)–one still has the choice to make other investments as well.
    The idea of government is that we elect and expect it to make decisions about *collective* choices, like schooling and roads, that are common needs. Pregnancy isn’t a collective choice–though arguably, children are a collective responsibility, and we ought to do more to take that responsibility seriously as a society.

  2. Laura Says:

    I agree with what Dr. B said. Plus I think Democrats are often for choices that are personal decisions that tend to affect only that person–abortion, physician-assisted suicide, for example. Whereas schooling and health care could be argued to have a broader effect. An uneducated citizenship is a disadvantage to everyone and citizens without healthcare drain resources from the rest of the citizens. I might want to make certain decisions that I can’t right now–schools for example. But my default is a good one. Would it stay that way if a choice was given? I’m not sure and I think that’s the fear here, that if choice is given in areas where there are currently good defaults, will those defaults become defunct or less desirable, leaving those who cannot choose in a terrible situation?

Leave a Reply

eight + 2 =