Survival Instincts Drive Americans' Discontent

Late last month, the New York Times ran a Sunday essay by Eduardo Porter (search) called "Choice Is Good. Yes, No or Maybe?"

Porter noted that while choice may be the driving force behind capitalism, and what has made us prosperous, there's an emerging opinion among some critics that, as one Columbia psychologist put it, "more choice can be worse than less choice."

"Sometimes, critics argue, government should limit people's choices," Porter writes. "That is, choose for them." Porter used the concept of "choice fatigue" to argue against private Social Security accounts. Some people can be overwhelmed by choice, the thinking goes, and sometimes, some people will choose poorly.

Therefore, at least in this case, it's better that government make all choices for all people.

The argument is ridiculous, of course. People have always made poor choices, and they always will. Free markets depend on it. The beauty of capitalism is that it selects winners and losers. That's how good ideas are advanced, expanded and improved upon, and how bad ideas are cast aside. It's unfortunate that we need to have losers, but in the end, we all benefit from the innovation, creativity and prosperity that results from competitive free enterprise.

Unfortunately, the ideas in Porter's essay are finding more and more adherents lately. Swarthmore professor Barry Schwarz (search) has written an entire book on what he calls "choice fatigue," or the idea that the American consumer is getting overwhelmed by the abundance of choice he has. Too many deodorants. Too many cheeses. Too much produce. Consequently, Schwarz argues, we grow increasingly weary with each trip to the supermarket. Let's think of it as the Tyranny of Mustard.

Prolific writer Gregg Easterbrook (search) stakes out similar ground in his book "The Progress Paradox." Despite our wealth, Easterbrook argues, "studies" show that we're simply not happy. We're inundated with spam e-mail and stuck in gridlock; we're overweight; someone in the neighborhood inevitably has a better house, a faster car, or a better lawn. An emerging academic field called "happiness studies" lends scholarly heft to Easterbrook's thesis. Taken together, the "Tyranny of Mustard" crowd's concerns amount to a gentle prod at the free market, a sly insinuation that maybe this "prosperity" thing isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Well, how quaint, and amusing. Just a generation ago, capitalism's critics were telling us how unfettered free markets would swallow up the world's resources, induce mass famine, and portend global environmental catastrophe.

Noted doom-and-gloomer Paul Ehrlich (search) — who, despite being consistently wrong over the years, still enjoys inexplicable esteem — has predicted that "hundreds of millions of people will die" in "world famines" (1968), said there was a 50-50 chance that "England will not exist in the year 2000" (1969), that by 1980 "all important animal life in the sea will be extinct" (1970), and that a global cooling trend will "reduce agricultural productivity" for the last quarter of the twentieth century" (1976).

Of course, Ehrlich couldn't have been more wrong. Resources are more abundant now than when Ehrlich made his predictions. Market-driven technology spurred an agricultural explosion in the 1970s and '80s, and resulted in a glorious abundance of food. Certainly, there's still hunger in the world, sometimes even famine, but it's brought on by war, corruption and other geopolitical concerns, not scarcity of food. In fact, over the last decade, the total number of people living in absolute poverty has declined, even as the total world population has increased — a first in the history of man.

There may be something to Easterbrook's theory — that our competitive drive will always keep us one upgrade, one extra piece of furniture, or one more week of vacation short of content. It's how we're wired. Our psychiatry was molded in more primitive times, in an environment where resources were scarce, and only the most competitive among us survived. Those traits that allowed the strongest to persevere and reproduce didn't simply go away. They're still with us, and so we're always striving for a little more.

It's human nature. That vestiges of the drive that kept us alive throughout the millennia makes malcontents of us now is an unfortunate blip in our psychiatry, but it's no reason to hold up progress, particularly when there are still so many people in the world who'd love to have the "problems" we endure as Americans. (I'm sure there are Somalis or Ethiopians who'd love to experience the "epidemic" of obesity or "choice fatigue" in the grocery store).

Unfortunately, hidden in "happiness studies" is the suggestion that we might be better off if government took a few choices away from us — that perhaps we can't handle all of this good fortune on our own. That's silly, and a little dangerous. Choice drives the market. The freedom to make choices — good and bad — is essential to continuing and sharing our prosperity.

A generation ago, market critics were predicting the end of civilization. If the worst anti-capitalists can say about capitalism today is that it's given us too many choices and too much abundance, and the worst examples they can point to are traffic, spam e-mail, and obesity, then the debate itself is in many ways a victory.

Radley Balko maintains a Weblog at:

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