Saturday, June 25, 2005

Too many choices?

Consumer Vertigo
Virginia Postrel

(...)During the last couple of decades, the American economy has undergone a
variety revolution. Instead of simply offering mass-market goods, businesses of
all sorts increasingly compete to give consumers more personalized products,
more varied experiences, and more choice.

(...) Young, well-educated adults in particular have unprecedented freedom to
make whatever they want of their lives: to decide where to live, what to do,
whom to befriend, whom (or whether) to marry.

“Since graduation, we’ve struggled to make our own happiness,” Jenny Norenberg,
a young lawyer, writes in Newsweek. “It seems that having so many choices has
sometimes overwhelmed us. In the seven years since I left home for college,
I’ve had 13 addresses and lived in six cities. How can I stay with one person,
at one job, in one city, when I have the world at my fingertips?”

It’s all too much, declares the latest line of social criticism. Americans are
facing a crisis of choice. We’re increasingly unhappy, riddled with anxiety and
regret, because we have so much freedom to decide what to do with our money and
our lives. Some choice may be good, but we’ve gone over the limit. The result
is _The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies_, the title of Yale political
scientist Robert Lane’s 2000 book on the subject.

To these critics, providing too many choices is the latest way liberal societies
in general, and markets in particular, make people miserable. “Choices
proliferate beyond our pleasure in choosing and our capacity to handle the
choices,” writes Lane. Like cheap food and sedentary labor, the argument goes,
abundant choice is not something human beings are biologically evolved to cope
with. We’d be better off with fewer decisions to make.

“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

(...)At the heart of the anti-choice argument is a false dichotomy: We can have
a narrow range of standardized choices, or we can live with options that are
infinite, dizzying, and always open.

“Social ties actually decrease freedom, choice, and autonomy,” he writes.
“Marriage, for example, is a commitment to a particular other person that
curtails freedom of choice in sexual and even emotional partners.” (...)
There’s something deeply wrong with this understanding of choice. Freedom to
choose must include the freedom to commit.

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.

“We are free to be the authors of our lives,” says Schwartz, “but we don’t know
exactly what kind of lives we want to ‘write.’” Maturity lies in deciding just

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