The Perils of Free Choice

By Shlomo Maital  

    Today’s New York Times (August 18 – int. edition) has an opinion piece by Benjamin Storey and Jenna Silber Storey, scholars at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a right-wing conservative think tank in Washington.  The title:  “The art of choosing what to do with your life.”

    They include a quote by Alexis de Tocqueville, who observed that people who have freedom and plenty but lack the art of choosing will be restless in the midst of their prosperity.”  This French aristocrat turns out to be the leading interpreter of American politics and society, in his books   Democracy in America (1835 and 1840) and The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856).  Outsiders always have keen insights on the behavior of insiders.

    Conservatives are big fans of freedom of choice.  There is even a House caucus, the House Freedom Caucus, with far-far-right members.  And they are supported by economists, whose mathematical theories prove that more choice is better than less – because you can always decline an option, so more choices can only improve life.

    But psychologists know this is false.  Choice brings anxiety, regrets (damn, I picked the wrong cereal box), and wastes time.  I once published a research paper, showing that people often constrain themselves, and improve their wellbeing by doing so – less is more. 

     The authors of the opinion piece recommend that “colleages…prioritize initiating students into a culture of rational reflection”.  Really?  What about educating capitalist CEO’s against filling the shelves (to muscle out more space) with endless varieties of salad dressing, cereals and shampoos, of basically the same damn product. 

  And as for choosing what to do with your life:   At age 18, I had to choose a major in college. I chose economics, randomly, because I did well on an exam.  It was a profession for which I was unsuited.  But after a Ph.D., it was too late.  And I did not realize how unsuited I was for economics until mid-life.   Economics has changed – it has become behavioral.  I had a minor role in this, with my psychologist wife. * But I wish I had made a better choice at age 18.

  • See Minds Market and Money (Basic Books:  New York 1982).
  • B. Storey, J. S. Storey, “The art of choosing what to do with your life”. NYT Aug. 18/2022.