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Free to Choose? | The Nation

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Free to Choose?

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An aisle in a virtual reality Tesco supermarket

An aisle in a virtual reality Tesco supermarket

The Art of Choosing
By Sheena Iyengar.
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Tough Choices
Structured Paternalism and the Landscape of Choice.
By Sigal R. Ben-Porath.
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The Myth of Choice
Personal Responsibility in a World of Limits.
By Kent Greenfield.
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The Tyranny of Choice
By Renata Salecl.
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Greenfield offers a different, if not antithetical, response. Most of The Myth of Choice reads as a cheerfully contrarian, verging-on-cute account of the wide variety of unrecognized constraints on free choice that already shape our lives. For the first three-quarters of the book, we are back in the territory of Gladwell and Iyengar, once again being regaled with the Great Jam Experiment alongside juicy court cases, familiar news stories (Abu Ghraib, Hurricane Katrina) and advertising references (“What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” “Have it your way”), and a lot of breezily told anecdotes about a coal-mining grandfather who got paid in scrip, the hazards of middle-class American child-rearing, and the joys and frustrations of shopping at Best Buy and Whole Foods. Our problematic brains trick us at every turn, we learn once again. Cultural norms keep us on the straight and narrow, circumscribing our range of options and stifling dissent. Why else, with all those choices available, do we generally seek to wear almost the same clothes as everyone else? Rules and authority figures do more of the same (and here we also get the famous Milgram experiment of the 1960s, in which participants proved willing to administer electric shocks to fellow volunteers rather than resist a professor’s orders). Finally, Greenfield insists that the market itself restricts our choices as much as it enables them, leaving all of us feeling overwhelmed, our collective moral and social dilemmas unsatisfactorily resolved, and the poor essentially powerless. As he notes in one of many clever asides, the one choice not really available to us is the choice to limit the spread of the market and its values.

What is more surprising about Greenfield’s book is where this overly long rehearsal of the “myth” of choice ends up. Rather than simply urge limited disengagement from consumer society as a principled response to a world of hollow choices, as one might expect, Greenfield, a law professor, argues for the cultivation of two old-fashioned virtues: “empathy,” or compassion toward others, and “humility” about oneself. Empathy, of course, is the very word that sent Republicans into a tailspin when President Obama called it an important quality in a Supreme Court justice on the eve of Sandra Sotomayor’s appointment. But Greenfield hopes that if we move away from the destructive tendency to see an idealized world of “free choice” as the ground on which we all operate, and if we make more of an effort to acknowledge the various constraints that produced our own (or others’) bad choices, we will come to a political conclusion. If we were really serious about promoting choice and personal responsibility across the board, we would need substantially more help from the government, especially the law. Not for Greenfield either is the small-bore paternalism of nudges, in which the tools of advertisers and marketers are turned toward socially constructive ends. Greenfield unabashedly advocates an interventionist state that prevents economic need from becoming a source of coercion and also promotes (as opposed to tolerates) diversity and dissent. He has, in this book, simply found a new way to endorse these progressive goals: by advocating public measures to make our choices more “genuine” and “real.”

Greenfield, like Ben-Porath and Iyengar, still returns in the end to an imagined realm of authentic choice that, for all of these authors, equals authentic freedom. It remains unclear in each case if unhampered choice constitutes the human condition in some earlier period or natural state (in which case, we are reminded of Rousseau’s insistence that people in developed societies must now be “forced to be free”), or if genuine choice exists only in some utopia yet to be achieved. It is hard to know in part because so much of the writing on this subject is dedicated to explaining, à la Greenfield, that the constraints on our ability to choose are more extensive than we imagine. Nevertheless, the common thread in these accounts is that “real” or “true” or “genuine” or “meaningful” choice—the foundation of the liberal imagination—will indeed prevail if, and only if, we learn to pay attention to the ways it is hampered at present and then use our collective energies to enable its flourishing. In a sense, all three authors propose to employ the dominant ideology of consumer society (Greenfield’s “rhetoric of the powerful”) to limit the dominance of the market and to justify an activist state.

Salecl offers a strong rejoinder to this view. The Slovenian philosopher, who has no practical suggestions to make and mixes her observations about Internet dating and plastic surgery with largely unhelpful passages of dense Lacanian analysis and a dollop of Marxism, comes close to saying that belief in genuine (unfettered, rational, individual) choice is the greatest myth of all. For not only does this faith require us to ignore our own psychology, in which it is not neurological hardwiring but unconscious impulses and desires that rule; it can also prevent us from acknowledging that today, as the language of choice maximization permeates even the intimate realms of sex and reproduction, we must throw off its chains in order to envision something new. Indeed, Salecl warns us rather ominously that we are never more caught up in the ideology of choice than when we think we have escaped it by embracing simplicity and personally opting out!

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Iyengar actually makes a similar case—and in more accessible terms. Her position between two cultures (that of India, where she was born and has strong ties, and that of the United States, where she lives and works) allows her some fine observations about choice as ultimately one set of narrative conventions among several possibilities, and one that works less well for her Indian relatives, not to mention postcommunist Eastern Europeans or the Japanese, than for her Columbia Business School colleagues. The Art of Choosing opens with the story of her own family’s arrival in North America told from three perspectives—that of fate, accident and choice—precisely to show that there is nothing natural about imposing choice and self-determination as the main rubrics for making sense of the raw data of our lives, from birth to marriage(s) to death. Yet in the end, Iyengar refuses to adjudicate and simply tells her readers of the importance of recognizing cultural differences (or “metaphorical multilingualism,” as she calls it) when it comes to business values such as risk and choice. She herself risks nothing more incendiary than that.

Salecl alone uses a discussion of free-choice ideology to offer a robust critique of a global culture of individual acquisition and self-betterment that, she argues, has resulted neither in greater happiness nor greater justice. She never denies that making choices is an “essential human capacity,” one that renders change possible. But she also wants to remind us that choice and coercion are closely related (for her, the consumer is the new slave), and that the more our menu of options grows in size or significance, the more we will seek, consciously or not, to bind ourselves in other ways in compensation, whether through psychological mechanisms or the legal arm of the state. For Salecl, even the enduring appeal of the idea of a higher power is but another way to deal with the uncertainty and anxiety brought on by having to make so many decisions by and for oneself in the first place. The Tyranny of Choice thus belongs to the very dialectical history it is charting; this brief book is itself a powerful demand for collective restraint in light of the burden of proliferating choice. The question we are left with is whether the way forward lies in turning the neoliberal language of choice against the market model, or in imagining the world in entirely different terms.

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