All Commentary
Sunday, April 1, 2001

To Be Is to Choose

Can We Really Have Too Many Choices?

Left and right critics of free markets sometime level the criticism that capitalism encourages crass consumerism and materialism. Stores and malls proliferate, offering round the clock a dizzying array of products that people did perfectly well without not so long ago. A well-known conservative journalist/political aspirant once said to me, “You’ve walked through the mall. Do we really need all those things?”

Some people—even some consumers—are bothered by the number of choices within categories of products. The New York Times recently carried a report of studies by a professor of psychology and a professor of business which purport to show that consumers can get overwhelmed with too many choices. Mark R. Lepper, chairman of Stanford University’s psychology department, told the Times, “One can go too far in the process of offering choices and when we are confronted with an array of choices that is larger than we can manage, it has negative effects.”

According to the Times:

Dr. Edward L. Deci, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester who studies human motivation [and who did not conduct the studies], said that “having more than an optimal number of options is not necessarily a motivating factor, as these studies have nicely shown.”

“It’s very important for people to have choices, to be able to decide what’s meaningful for them,” he added. “But you can get overloaded with it, just as you can anything else.”

Well, okay. There’s a grain of truth here. We’ve all been bewildered at one time or another by a large variety of products. But we manage, don’t we? We ask friends about their experiences or we read product reviews or find any number of ways to winnow the selection down to a manageable number.

Furthermore, what is an optimal number of choices for one person is suboptimal for someone else. Should the least competent at dealing with choices set the standard for everyone else?

The availability of many choices need not instill materialism or befuddlement. Each individual is still in charge of his conduct and his life. Choice is the consequence of freedom, so at the moment of exasperation, consider the alternative. The range of choice under socialism satisfied no one, including the rulers who managed to procure Western goods.

Complaining about the sumptuous buffet that capitalism sets before us is like railing against 24-hour all-you-can-eat restaurants. The existence of those restaurants does not imply that you should eat all you can 24 hours a day. It simply says, “We’re here when you want us.” The same with the rest of the marketplace.

You don’t have to consume everything you see. It’s just there when you want it. Exercise self-responsibility and prosper.

* * *

April is the cruelest month, thanks to the Sixteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. Congress. How is a civilized person to cope? Ted Roberts commiserates.

The late nineteenth century was a remarkably good time for the people of the United States. But it’s not usually portrayed that way. Andrew Bernstein identifies the era’s distinguishing characteristic.

When a multinational corporation sets up shop and hires lots of poor, unemployed people at low wages, many people consider this outrageous exploitation—except. . . . Ralph Hood discusses the exception.

Too often the market order is thought to be amoral. In fact, as Nathaniel Branden explains, it is rooted deeply in the morality of self-responsibility.

The World Wide Web has made possible global auctions for all kinds of products, including rare collectibles. But how does the process overcome the risk of fraud? Aaron Steelman draws on his firsthand experience to answer that question.

In recent years we have witnessed the spectacle of the law’s being used to undermine the rule of law. The results have been catastrophic, according to James Bovard.

Government historically has accrued power by scaring people about one imminent danger or another—usually bogus. James Payne says that’s what the government is doing with terrorism.

The anti-gun lobby has opened a new, public-health front, with the help of the medical establishment and its prestigious journals. According to Dr. Miguel Faria, it’s junk medicine.

The drug czar in the last administration found a new problem just as he was leaving office: the drug threat among chess players. George Leef wonders what the czar has been smoking.

In the philosophical literature, rights come in two varieties: negative and positive. Or, as Tibor Machan shows, authentic and counterfeit.

Our columnists set forth a delectable smorgasbord of provocative goodies this month: Donald Boudreaux cautions against reification of abstractions such as “the nation” and “the market.” Lawrence Reed explains the California power crisis. Doug Bandow marvels at the endurance of congressional incumbents. Dwight Lee applies economic principles to the environment. Mark Skousen sees a better way to do national income accounting. Walter Williams offers his take on racial profiling. And Christopher Lingle responds to those who believe rising energy prices will ignite inflation, “It Just Ain’t So!”

Books on charter schools, monopoly, the rule of law under Clinton, mutual-aid societies, the ethics of self-interest, and the anthropology of trade grab our reviewers’ attention this month.

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.