Battlepanda: Choice and happiness redux


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Choice and happiness redux

So, Mark Steckbeck is not content with my latest response to our conversations about Barry Schwartz, a psychologist whose work seem to suggest that more choice does not necessarily make people happier. Reading through my last post, I have to agree it was a pretty empty exercise in rhetorical point-scoring. So now, as promised, let's get down to the heart of the matter.

First of all, I don' think we can get anywhere unless we separate Schwartz's work from his politics. Mark probably disagree with Schwartz, as well as myself, about the role of government in our lives, but he still have to come to terms with Schwartz's conclusions because they are based on empirical evidence. Schwartz did not write an op-ed column musing about how the free-market isn't the answer and that more choice must make people unhappy. He went out there and conducted experiments and analyzed data. Mark might be unhappy that Schwartz does not acknowledge the positive side of the free-market. And although I might ask back why so few freemarket cheerleaders acknowledge the market's downside, it's all really irrelevant. An irratioal hatred of markets might be a personal blind-spot for Schwartz, I don't know. But it should not affect how we view his work unless Mark thinks Schwartz's personal bias affected the methodology or tainted the outcome of those experiments.

Secondly, (Mark and commenter Russ) have repeatedly argued that the ramifications of Schwartz's conclusion (that more choices does not necessarily make us happier) would inevitably be the paternalistic, if not totalitarian, limiting of those choices by the powers-that-be. I wonder if they will also oppose psychological studies showing that more money doesn't make people happier, on the ground that it would inevitably lead to our money forcibly taken away from us. In fact, psychologists study a host of cognitive biases with no easy answers. I belive that it is an enormously useful body of work because simply because being aware of our irrational thinking patterns goes a long way towards innoculating us against errors in judgement. Thus Schwartz's ideas could actually increase the efficiency of markets by pointing out its flaws. For instance, people might stop clamoring for more and more cable channels because they realize that after a certain point, more channels simply take the joy out of channel surfing. Then the cable providers will have to compete by providing more quality content or easier navigation. In short, a more meaningful choice.

Now, moving on from Schwartz, let's talk a little more generally about the role of government in limiting the choices we have. The very idea is anathema to Mark. He talks a lot about paternalism and totalitarianism in reference to government interventions. This rhetoric rings false to me, and I suspect it doesn't have the same force with the general public as libertarians in general think it should. After all, we live in a democracy, not a monarchy or a dictatorship. Through our elected representatives, we make sweeping choices that reflect the aggregate of our individual desires. Even when I disagree with the result, I respect this process a lot more than some guy who inherited the throne issuing decrees from on high. Sure, if Mark can show that market solutions work better than governmental solutions for a particular problem or issue, he should shout it from the rooftops. But what he would need to do to get his ideas accepted is to convince enough Americans that the outcomes would be better if we followed his agenda. Not that they should do it simply to be free from government.