The Age of Possibility is Increasingly Impossible

By Shlomo  Maital     

 Economists are wrong about a vast number of things.   One of our fallacies is the firm belief that freedom of choice is always ‘welfare-improving’ (i.e. makes us happier) and binding constraints make us unhappy.  As David Brooks notes in his latest NYT column (Global NYT, Nov. 17-18, p. 7), we have in the past generation entered the ‘age of possibility’.  This is an age where we are intolerant of “any arrangement that might close off our personal options’.  The result:

*  “The number of Americans living alone shot up from 9 per cent in 1950 to 28 per cent today”.  Not only are we “bowling alone”, as scholar R. Putnam wrote, we are living alone.   Responsible only for ourselves.  How great. How liberating.

*  “In 1990 65 per cent of Americans said children are very important to a successful marriage”.  The percent saying that today is only 41 per cent.

*  “There are now more American houses with dogs than with children”. 

  This phenomenon extends to Germany, Taiwan, Scandinavia, Brazil and many other societies.  Why is it happening? In part, you can blame global capitalism.

   The surest way people ‘bind’ themselves, says Brooks, is through the family.  But says Brooks, we are “entering a world where more people search for different ways [other than family] to attach”.

    To me, this is sad.  I’m convinced that for most people, especially toward their later years in life, having a warm and loving family to wrap around you is by far the greatest source of joy, comfort, inspiration and meaning.   And I strongly agree with Brooks that people are “better off when they are enshrouded in commitments that transcend personal choice—commitments to family, G-d, craft, and country”.  Indeed, I published an article precisely about this 26 years ago.*   

* S. Maital  “Prometheus Rebound:  On welfare-improving constraints”, Eastern Economic Journal, XII (3), July 1986, 337-344