Things To Act
Friday, January 30, 2004
Choice & Satisfaction II
Monday's NYTimes carried several whining letters to the editor, showing that the original piece on choice and public policy had struck a nerve. What struck me was how incompetent so many people seemed to be in finding satisfaction in making choices. I suppose, as a matter of policy, letting such people turn significant portions of their agency over to others (or even the government) should probably be allowed--but I don't think that their squeamishness with making choices should be allowed to constrain the rest of us.

The complaints about too many products to choose from are even more baffling. Certainly it can be annoying to try to decipher which of 20 brands of jam is superior--unless you decide that whatever you used last time is good enough, or else was so inferior that you'd rather try something randomly new, in which case you still don't spend a lot of time on the decision because if it doesn't work out, you'll just try again the next time. It's amazing how this technique simplifies shopping. I suspect that many of the same people who complain about the confusing array of choices are the same ones who complain when a particular product they like is taken off the market because of insufficient demand. In any event, the problem with choice and satisfaction is an internal psychological problem much more than a public policy problem--and the solution, if you feel overwhelmed by choice, is to artificially constrain the choices yourself (as everybody does in some circumstances) rather than expecting someone else to do it for you.

There may be a compelling argument in the public policy arena that government agencies aren't very good at designing programs that give citizens choices, because bureaucratic complexity makes the choices hard to understand. But that's actually an argument for greater competition and privatization, as private companies are remarkable good at figuring out what the paying customers want, even down to the acceptable level of choice versus simplicity.

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