Does having choice, whether over breakfast
cereal or pension plans, make us happy? It’s become fashionable to say that we can have
too much choice. That if we face many different options, we’ll get stressed about making
the wrong choice, or that we’ll be comparing our choices unfavorably to the choices that
other people have made. This is what many behavioral economists and social psychologists
describe as the paradox of choice. We say that we want to have choice, but it turns
out actually that choice isn’t really that good for us.
As someone who often has panic attacks whenever I enter a supermarket, I’ve got considerable
sympathy with the idea that having choice creates stress. But I think we’re fooling
ourselves if we think that having governments regulate and control our lives in various
ways that we can relieve ourselves of this burden. If choosing for yourself induces stress,
then choosing for other people must induce even more stress on behalf of the chooser,
at least if they have our best interests at heart.
If we’re choosing for other people, we should be very, very concerned about whether we’re
making the right decision. If we take seriously the idea that choice creates stress, then
it will be to place an intolerable burden on regulators and bureaucrats to expect them
to choose for us. So great will be this burden that there’ll be no reason to believe that
they would actually make wise choices on our behalf.
Even if we assume, for the sake, of argument that bureaucrats and regulators aren’t actually
too stressed out, there’s no reason to believe that they actually have the knowledge to make
the best choices for us. They simply can’t know enough about our own personalities and
characteristics to choose wisely for us. So, there’s one choice that we simply can’t
avoid. Either we face the reality of having to make our own choices and dealing with the
burden of that stress, or we face the still greater burden of knowing that choices are
being made for us by people who are either too stressed or who lack the knowledge to
make the best choices for us.