Monday, February 27, 2012

Opting for illusions

In The Myth of Choice: Personal Responsibility in a World of Limits, law professor Kent Greenfield asserts that too many liberties get taken with our notions of freedom

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.  

Some readers have compared this book to the work of Malcolm Gladwell. It's not hard to see why; the core strategy of Gladwell mega-bestsellers such as The Tipping Point -- arrestingly simple assertion illustrated with anecdotal information from a variety of fields -- is very much in evidence here. But in an important sense, The Myth of Choice, which is about as well-written as anything in Gladwell's entertaining oeuvre, proves to be a more satisfying experience. That's because the illustrations are enlisted in the service in a more focused world view: that the libertarian cast of our sociopolitical discourse is at best misguided and at worst plays into the hands of those who manipulate our false sense of sovereignty in the service of their often pernicious agendas.

It's apparent that Kent Greenfield's life experiences have served him well. Born in small-town Kentucky, the son of a Baptist minister and a schoolteacher, he went to Brown and clerked for Supreme Court justice David Souter before taking a position at Boston College Law School. Each of these elements -- plain-spoken eloquence, intellectual rigor, a methodical cast of mind, flinty New England skepticism -- blend in his first-person voice. He writes as engagingly about a childhood contest of wills with an elementary school teacher as he does in parsing legal opinions. This is a book that can be read in a single sitting -- but also dispensed as bite-sized assignments in any number of humanities or social science courses.

Greenfield begins by noting that the notion of free choice is essentially the default setting in American society. If there's one thing everyone from left wing social activists to conservative evangelicals can agree on, it's an emphasis on agency as principle, goal, and/or reality. Sometimes choice is framed in terms of freedom; other times it's in the name of personal responsibility (with a subtext of cost). But even when two or more sides disagree on an issue, the underlying assumption is often that people can -- or, if not, should be able -- to choose.

The problem, Greenfield says, is that choice isn't always that simple. For one thing, the very meaning of choice can be subjective: one man's "option" is another woman's "necessity." For another, "free" choice often has hidden costs, like environmental clean-up, that are displaced onto others. Sometimes choice can be overwhelming, particularly when presented with incomplete information, as is often the case. Other times choice is relatively meaningless, particularly when the options are (literally or figuratively) unappetizing.

Yet even when choice is perceived to be genuine, there are all kinds of influences that militate against it. Greenfield writes individual chapters on the way biology, culture, market forces, and relations of power all shape the parameters of choice in ways we underestimate, assuming we're conscious of them at all. At the same time, there are people who are quite shrewd about such matters who perform their calculations as finely as as a casino owner playing the gambler. So it is that our propensity for salt, sex, and personal distinction lead us down the path of least resistance, which is not always in our best interest as we ourselves would define them.

Greenfield's real animus though, is against those who invoke personal responsibility as a stalking horse for what turns out to be the opposite: freedom from responsibility. A staunch defender of the Obama administration's health care reforms, he asks how anyone can plausibly invoke the right to opt out of buying an insurance policy given the likelihood that insolvency would be the result of any serious uninsured illness, thus imposing the cost on someone else. He emphasizes the human price on those told to deny any and all altruistic instincts, arguing that the avowedly uninsured deny choice to those told not to avert human suffering. He also foregrounds the imposition on those who have the misfortune of witnessing the gruesome consequences that can result from someone not wearing a motorcycle helmet, for example.

A compendium of recent scholarship that ranges from psychologist Daniel Gilbert to progressives like Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, The Myth of Choice is an unabashed document of the contemporary left. As such it invites disagreement, principally from the direction of wondering how much confidence Greenfield can really have that one can check one's impulses, change habits, and consider context, or whether the very attempt to control environmental factors won't breed new forms of coercion. But even critics will find his argument as among the best of its kind. For all its iconoclasm, this is a book of the zeitgeist, and deserves to be read, now and later, as an expression of it.