Can Government Solve the Paradox of Choice?


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.

Maurice Vega

58 Responses

  1. Pennington makes an error: he assumes bureaucrats will have the same stress-causing factors. I think this is an incorrect assumption, as he doesn't address the cause of stress in having a choice. While I don't know any studies off the top of my head to cite, I think lack of knowledge is one of the factors. If (and I realize that can seem like a big "if" as suggested by Pennington) the bureaucrats are knowlegeable on whatever decision they are making, then they should not have as much stress.

  2. …But to his credit, at least he doesn't treat choice like some magical fix-all solution like some libertarians I know!

  3. @TheMidwestAtheist Well, let's start with the last part first-what would give assurance a bureaucrat is knowledgeable? Second, does being knowledgeable guarantee benevolence? Third, under what circumstances can a bureaucrat know what is better for ourselves more than us?

  4. The opposite of choice is force. Threat of violence.
    I'll take the stress of having to make my own choices over the stress of the threat of violence against me and my family, thank you very much.
    Politicians, bureaucrats, religious leaders and governments SUCK.

  5. @TheMidwestAtheist I'm a libertarian. Choice is not a magical fix all. But it is better than the alternative, which is force, or threat of violence. I'll take the stress of choice over the stress of the threat of violence against me and my family any day. Wouldn't you?

  6. "It would be to place an intolerable burden on regulators … so great would be this burden there is no reason to believe they would make wise choices on our behalf". I am sympathetic to this argument, but you are making an empirical claim. I have no idea how to measure it either, but none the less arm chair theorizing won't work here.

    As for the, knowledge problem, I totally agree. Your argument relies on the knowledge problem, but the previous point is not self evident and requires data

  7. Jefferson once said: "I would rather suffer the inconveniences of too much freedom, than suffer those of having too little."

  8. Communists don't want necessarily the best choices to be made for them, they just want to be acted on, to be molded….that is why ANY choice good or bad made for them by another will please them.

  9. @xchris109x I choose to not trust the argument of someone who can't even handle the stress of shopping in a supermarket… although I really hate the choices of manufactured food in most supermarkets.

  10. @siftyfour "the stressed involved with making choices is a result of a lack of information to make comparisons"

    Now imagine if a banker, a lawyer, a doctor and a poet made the choice for you and it was a single company for that mother board and picked a "no-name" CPU that burns out all the time but costs 5 times as much. And you had to fill out the proper paper work just to get it. And another person had to install it for you, though you are the expert.

    That's gov't for you.

  11. Only we can make decisions regarding ourselves. Central planners cannot know what's "best for us", since "best" is an individually subjective term.

  12. paradox of choice is nonsensical tosh based on questionable research supported by the mentally ill. (Yes, if you have a panic attack every time you enter a grocery store you're mentally ill)

  13. @sanitydotorg Simple-minded slogans and self-important piffle: hallmarks of the right wing delusion. It's a shame this channel's intelligent videos are wasted on such uncritical minds.

    The real parasites are not "big government" Liberals but the big business you defend: they are the ones that seek subsidies; feed off government contracts; lobby our government; buy our representatives and write our laws.

    The Left abhors monopolies. The Right would make us serfs to their corporate masters.

  14. @CentristFiascox3 lol you Righties. Always good for a laugh. It's like hearing excited preschoolers contemplate Aristotle; it's clear you just don't get it. It's clear you don't know what Marxism is and that those whom you've surrendered your faculties to have complete control of your thought processes.

    One might be tempted to giggle and pat you on the head if you guys weren't so dangerous en masse.

  15. The abundance of choice – especially meaningless choice like in breakfast cereal and other exact same product with a different box, like life insurance, cars, consumer electronics, etc. – is actually caused by government intervention.

    With natural interest rates, businesses would not be able to profit from flooding the market with so many similar products. They'd lose money, because it is 'not worth it' to produce items of such low value to consumers. How can we profit as an 8th place cereal?

  16. By the way, he is using the nanny government argument that choice causes excessive stress against the nanny government.

  17. @TheMidwestAtheist He specifically acknowledges that beaureacrats cannot have the sufficient knowledge.

    The argument is that IF choice causes stress, then the choices that regulators would need to make to reduce our choices (to lower our stress) would cause excessive stress.

    It's a case of using the justification to regulate and reduce our stress against the justification itself.

  18. … I don't believe the garbage that (for most) choice creates stress. I enjoy choice because it allows individuals to be different. Choice allows me to wear New Rock boots, 5 Finger Death Punch hoodies and tripp pants. I don't want to be a clone. I don't compare my choices negatively against those of others. If they have something better, I have the choice to go out and save up to buy what they have – or better. This whole paradox of choice idea only applies to the very immature and materialist

  19. @stevemcgee99 – I honestly don't think this is true. Producing similar items to name brands is profitable. An eighth place cereal can capitalize on trends explored successfully by other brands, while not putting out the capital on research and development. This means that since less money has gone into the development of the product, it can be marketed far cheaper. The same idea works for any industry with trends over time.

  20. @Slipknotyk06 The example might not be ideal, especially without adding hypothetical financial date to go with it.

    But let's say the cereal is 4% profitable. And what do you expect interest rates would be without government intervention in the credit market? Surely not less than 4%. Would investors throw away money in the cereal brand?

    A lot of resources are wasted, causing economic loss, in the pursuit of monetary gain.

    My point is tangental to this video, though. Off-topic.

  21. @stevemcgee99 That's not a rebuttal to Slipknot's comment unless I misunderstand your disagreement. He is saying that the lack of marketing and R&D costs mean that the average cost/unit is lower, thus allowing for a lower consumer price and higher demand. If you are not borrowing so what if rates rise

    However, I agree that interest rates are far too low right now due to govt intervention. Now when rates do rise, Americans will be consuming a lot less so the cereal firm may not do well then haha

  22. @sidspop I know what corporatism is. Capitalism between individuals – what I call "small town" or local capitalism is a beautiful thing. But history shows again and again that the profit motive compels industry and its captains to seek out the number one customer of all: the state. We need to get back to the original function of the corporate charter as it was in the early 19th century; it was temporary and used only for a public service.

  23. Stress is caused by concern for the consequences of the choice being made. Will choosing "A" give me a better result than choosing "B"? It's much easier to make choices for others, especially people I'm not likely to meet, since I'm unlikely to suffer any consequences, good or bad. In fact, I probably won't even KNOW the consequences. I don't want some bureaucrat making any choices for me, thank you.

  24. @Ravengaurd6 some people actually believe that their lives would be better if a central power limited their choices to a select few approved options. They think too much freedom is a burden to the individual. Of course these people are morons … but they honestly believe it.

  25. If regulators and bureaucrats have an intolerable burden when making choices for us, then they deserve high compensation and generous retirements benefits (including to be able to retire at 45).

  26. This is just the result of our bs economy. Consider toothpaste. You probably have like 30 choices in a single store, but really there are 3 different types: no fluoride, fluoride and fluoride with whitening. All the other variations amount to how shiny the box is.

  27. In defense of behecons: Its important to ask yourself, whether the stress of choice is more harmful to our psyche than the decision of some bureaucrat who doesnt give a **** about our own preferences. For the sake of our happiness its crucial to compare the loss of free choice with the loss of not having too much choices. We dont need bureaucarts to make optimal decision. But we could be happier with some kind of suboptimal decision. SFME.

  28. Let's say a million people face the decision either to buy insurance or not, and the government then makes insurance compulsory. Do you really think the government has thereby made one million "stressful" choices? Actually, the government makes only one choice which is effective in a million cases. It's not really clear how this guy's "too much stress on the government" theory is really meant to apply to real life. But it sounds quite nice the highly abstract way he talks about it.

  29. These "Learn Liberty" videos range from hilarious propaganda to bewildering mutilations of ideas to get people to buy their idea. This is one of those videos that seems legitimate on the surface. but when you go down a few levels the idea unravels.
    Lacking room, condensed version; people in government are supposed to be better than the people they lead – government was not to be making choices FOR us (on most things), but to provide us with another, but was twisted over time.

  30. You misconstrued his argument entirely… Congrats. Hey, are you by any chance a Liberal, Progressive, Leftie, Socialist… etc…? When did he exclaim government was supposed to provide us with a choice? Do you care to make a legitimate argument, because that was a pathetic distorted criticism. Aww, do too many choices make you stressed out? :((( boo hoo…

  31. Why don't you go ahead and demonstrate the fallibility of the theories presented in this video and in others… I'll be anxiously awaiting your enlightening rebuttal. "Hilarious propaganda"… that's quite a typical way of galvanizing ignorant people who lack the ability to understand concepts and primarily function on perceptive knowledge and view arguments and ideas as irreducible primaries in and of themselves rather than multifaceted groups of ideas made up of concretes.

  32. At what "level" does the idea unravel? I don't think the Prof. in this case thinks the government should be making choices for anyone, period. Never does the Prof. make the argument the government's objective was to provide us with ANOTHER choice, but rather indirectly choose for us. He also never made the argument that their ability to make such choices was "twisted" over time, but rather that they're not capable of making choices for their constituents from the beginning. Go play video games.

  33. I don't think most social psychologists really look at things with a sense of history. I think it is in our nature to be stressed to some degree, it used to be stress over hungry lions in Africa, freezing to death on the Steppes of Asia and North America, and now it is over the dozens of kinds of toothbrushes. Even if the government stepped in and collapsed all choices into the fewest possible, the stress would shift from temporary anxiety to permanent numbing boredom.

  34. It's not clear to me what kind of application Mark wants this broad general free-floating argument to have.  So I can only assume that he intends it as a reduction of all market-regulating acts to choice-reducing acts.  Given virtually anything anyone does in a public role has an impact on a market – and a concompitant impact on choice – it's really not clear where choice and regulation here are intended to begin and end. 

    Historically pro-choice knowledge-problem-inspired arguments such as Mark's, have been marshalled against any kind of public role whatever beyond protecting transactions (the nightwatchman state).  If the value of freedom (choice) is in its ability to enable people to make the good life for themselves, then I'm not sure that the kinds of social order which Mark's argument leads to, really do promote or honour that valuable end – whether they maximise preference-satisfaction, life-project-achievement, or indeed minimise stress.

    Some people desire to regulate and would actually be deeply stressed if they couldn't fulfil such a role!

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