Things To Act
Saturday, January 24, 2004
Choice, Satisfaction, and Public Policy
This NYTimes article from a couple of days ago raises interesting issues, though in the typical NYTimes editorial page fashion doesn't analyze them well. The basic political message that the editors want to give seems to be that Bush's offers of choice will, prima facie, decrease satisfaction, which is clearly ridiculous. It is true that poorly designed initiatives (like some of those mentioned in the studies cited in the article) may not increase satisfaction among any but the most interested, but the underlying logic that proposing a greater number of choices is automatically bad doesn't follow, and is dangerous close to the master/slave caricature decried by libertarians--the policymakers, with their vast wisdom, decide what is best for the masses, who aren't smart enough to choose for themselves. This may not be what the author was trying to say (though I wouldn't put it past the editorial board at the Times).

In actuality, of course, whether an increase in options will lead to greater or lesser satisfaction depends on several factors. Is the issue of sufficient importance to the consumer to justify the costs of researching the best option? Is the menu of new choices carefully crafted or overwhelmingly large? Is the person educationally equipped to competantly choose? Is the person a maven who enjoys the decision-making process, and if not, are there experts who can assist in making the choice?

The specific policy proposals in the article, relating to retirement funds, health care, and education, are arguably of sufficient importance that many Americans will feel it well worth the costs of doing more research in order to have more options that will meet their individual needs. For those individuals who don't want to do the research, the traditional government-run options will still be available. Thus, critiquing the addition of choices in these programs seems to me to be unjustified (unless the array of choices approached tax-code complexity, in which case the relevant critique is of the complexity, not the choice).

More broadly, however, difficult choices will always exist in life--which college to attend, which house to buy, etc. Simply because some of us are more indecisive and prone to regrets than others is no reason to take these types of choices out of our hands--learning to deal with the consequences of our agency is one of the main reasons we're here on earth--and turning our agency over to government bureaucrats (unless done by choice) strikes me as not only as frequently leading to bad policy, but as immoral. Even if many people are happier under state control, those who prefer to choose for themselves should, as long as they don't hurt others, be given that option.

In addition, part of the wonder of the Information Age is the array of private solutions to the problem of too much information. Companies are learning the balance between personal customization and simplicity that consumers desire, and individuals are learning how to structure their lives to take advantage of the vast amounts of information now available without getting overloaded. Most individuals have trusted sources they turn to for information about areas in which they don't have enough information to make an intelligent choice. Perhaps the true liberal fear of choice is not that some individuals might feel unsatisfied, but that so many would feel more satisfied with competing options.

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