We are entering the season of the Great American Choice, the quadrennial selection of our leader. True, about 40 percent of those who could vote won’t, most because they choose not to choose. Despite calls for making voting compulsory, Americans consistently support, by about two-to-one, the option to opt out. As a precociously cynical twenty-something wrote in the mid-1960s, “Going to the candidates’ debate / Laugh about it, shout about it / When you’ve got to choose / Every way you look at it you lose.”
Americans are unusually obsessed with possessing, flexing, and even dismissing choice. Our political rhetoric venerates it; choice is the trump card in any debate. The right warns that public health care would end Americans’ ability to choose their own doctors. Milton Friedman declared in 1980 that we ought to be, per the title of his book and TV show, “free to choose”—as in a child laborer’s “choice” to work in a sweatshop. Conservative groups besiege public education on behalf of choice. In a Supreme Court ruling that sent tax funds to religious schools, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the policy “simply gives parents a greater choice as to where and in what manner to educate their children.”
For its part, the left campaigns to enlarge consumer choice, sexual choice, electoral choice, and, of course, abortion choice. While seemingly effective in gathering allies and in persuading judges, relying on the battle cry of choice left the abortion movement vulnerable to the riposte that it prefers a woman’s choice to an unborn baby’s life. Elsewhere in the world, abortion advocates emphasize less the principle of choice and more the calculation that access to abortion protects the well-being of mothers and of their brought-to-term children.
The only Americans who seem not to make individual choice the prime directive are the traditionally religious, for whom God’s commands come first. Then comes choice.
Choosing is, observers of our national character have remarked, essential to our views of what it means to be an American—indeed, what it means to be a person. Historian Daniel Walker Howe, in Making the American Self (1997), writes that the “capacity to choose is at the heart of political freedom as Americans have conceived of it, and the capacity to choose or revise one’s own identity is perhaps the ultimate exercise of that capacity.” Legal scholar Lawrence Friedman, in The Republic of Choice (1990), describes how American law became increasingly distinct through its expansion of individual choice. When American economists declare, as Lawrence Summers did in 2003, “The highest morality is respecting [individual] choices,” they are describing a particularly American philosophy that stresses the rationality and sovereignty of the individual consumer.
Beyond the words of these well-placed onlookers, social psychologists have repeatedly demonstrated how central choice is to Americans, especially to middle-class Americans of European descent. A classic lab study asked European American and Asian American children to work on a set of puzzles. Some children were given free choice of puzzles to solve and how to work on them, while others were assigned tasks and procedures by—so they were told—their mothers or their classmates. The European American kids did better when they thought they had freely chosen their tasks and tactics, while the Asian American kids did better when they accepted others’ choices for them.
In a variety of situations, Americans are likelier, compared to non-Americans and even to other Westerners, to value choice, to think they have choice, to work harder at a task if it is their choice to do so, and to feel better if they believe they have choice. Americans are also more likely to understand events as results not of chance, circumstance, or fate, but rather of a person’s deliberate choice.
Religion is one important arena of American choice. In stark contrast to the Old World, where a person’s religion was dictated by birth or a ruler’s decree, America has long provided fervently fertile ground for religious conversion, church switching, and theological invention. Even today Americans (and Canadians) lead the world in the percentage that choose to leave their parents’ faith, typically for another religion or denomination.
Choice has vastly expanded over American history, and not just in the material realm—the thousands of items in the supermarket, the world of travel destinations, and so on—but also in terms of social opportunities. Through changes in access, custom, and law, Americans have obtained freedom to choose their life paths and companions. Marrying across religious and racial lines, for example, has become increasingly common and acceptable. Gay marriage is coming, too, and already here in some places. Chacun à son goût, say the French, but it’s the Americans who really mean it.
Not only are there now more choices to make, but, over time, more kinds of Americans have gained the power to choose. The ideology of the eighteenth century held that only people who were truly independent—white men of property—were competent to choose wisely. The vote was, sensibly, then, restricted to such men. The next couple of centuries brought the working class, racial minorities, women, and young adults greater rights to choose and also more realistic choices. When women, for instance, could own their own property, earn their own income in respectable professions, and be heard in court, marriage became more equitable and more a matter of equal choice.
For all this seeming progress, however, scholars have recently argued that more choice is, in the words of social psychologists Hazel Markus and Barry Schwartz, “not an unalloyed good”:
Too much choice can produce a paralyzing uncertainty, depression, and selfishness. In the United States, the path to well-being may require that we strike a balance between the positive and negative consequences of proliferating choice in every domain of life.
Researchers have shown that offering Americans more options increases the chances that they make poor choices, choices they later regret, or no choice at all, whether the choices involve buying jam or saving for retirement. Just having to decide can wear people out; therefore, many seem to retreat from the complexities of decision-making. That’s why I hand my wife the menu when we eat out.
Psychologists’ skepticism toward choice connects with the rise of “behavioral economics.” Behavioral economists challenge the standard view in American economics, reflected by Summers’s comments, that homo economicus will make the best decisions if given more choice and more information. Instead, the behaviorists show that all sorts of cognitive quirks and failures make us much less than rational maximizers.
The new skeptics bring to mind an older group of social thinkers who warned that the widening of choice in modern life creates anxiety and the urge, in German-Jewish psychoanalyst Erich Fromm’s terms, to Escape from Freedom (1941). Social psychologist Kenneth Keniston wrote in his 1965 study of “alienated youth,” The Uncommited, “The demand that one choose and make commitments in the face of an enormous variety of socially available options is increasingly felt as a heavy demand.” More recently but in the same vein, journalist Alan Ehrenhalt asked, “Can we impose some control on the chaos of individual choice that we have created” and somehow reclaim the more ordered and organic life of mid-century America?
One reply to both the old and the new agonizing about choice is that making the hard effort to choose wisely is the price we pay for having options. Would we feel better if our choices reduced from 31 flavors to vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry? Would we seem better off if our choices of careers, partners, and ways of life were narrowed? As Americans, we wouldn’t, and the rest of the world is moving, for better or for worse, toward choice worship, too.
So, Paul Simon, if you can’t choose, you’ll definitely lose. Be sure to vote on November 6.