Sunday, May 09, 2010

The Choice Haters' Error

Tibor R. Machan

If you keep up with works coming from the academy hoping to influence the world as I try to do--in part because I wish I could claim some success at the same task--you may know that during the last several years a spate of books has hit the market in which the target is consumer choice. Like how we are supposed to have too many choices when we go to the grocery store, the mall, or more generally, throughout the market place. Too many flavors of ice cream; to many makes of automobiles; too many styles of shoes and pants and so forth. Well, anyone who has ever been to a mall, like the pretty swanky ones in my neighborhood--South Coast Plaza, Fashion Island, and so on--can figure out what the beef is about. No one could possibly process all the options he or she faces when entering these places. (Ergo, let's have politicians and bureaucrats limit our choices--for our own good!)

But it's just this that should alert one to the problem with such laments. The plain fact of the matter is that most of us don't go shopping expecting to peruse everything that's on display from which we could make our selections. No. Even when one goes to a grocery store--one of these huge ones that used to amaze European, especially Eastern European visitors to North America--one usually knows the places where what one is after can be found. Yes, there are a lot of cereals available to choose from but people don't explore all of them but a few--say, the several varieties of granola or oatmeal. Or one goes straight to the seafood or cheese sections.

In other words, not everything is on display for everyone who enters. Thousands of people come to these markets and most of them know where their kind and range of merchandise is to be found. No psychological trauma will afflict them--as suggested by the choice-haters who write these books, aiming therewith to undermine the merits of the market place where all these things may be found--because of some kind of mental overload.

But then this is common sense and too many of the academic enemies of the market are looking for the worst case scenario instead of crediting shoppers with the intelligence required to narrow the sphere wherein they will make their selections. It isn't as if we all went shopping tabula rasa, without a clue as to what we wanted. Most people know pretty well which region of the market place they will be checking out when they get on the road to do their shopping.

I recall another area where something like this came up, namely, in how a great many urban planners dislike tack houses. Yes, these structures do look very similar when looked at casually or from the air. However those who live in them aren't standing about looking at their homes from the outside and when you enter these homes, you find all the variety that humanity is capable of displaying within its living spaces. So while looked at as some kind of art form, from afar, they may not be very appealing, such cookie-cutter homes are (a) affordable and (b) plenty different where it counts, namely, inside.

Frederick Bastiat, the great French classical liberal political economists, coined the expression, which is the title of perhaps his most famous essays, "That which is seen, and that which is not Seen." It points up how often intellectuals fail to see what is important in economic affairs because they only notice what's on the surface--like when they champion minimum wage laws since on the surface these appear to help wage-earners, never mind that once closely examined it turns out that such laws produce unemployment among just those who need work most, namely, the unskilled.

I think Bastiat's point is applicable elsewhere, also, including when it comes to this matter of how we face too many choices in the market, so many, in fact, that it traumatizes most of us and contributes to our unhappiness. No--look closer--it does not!

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