One of the complaints of liberal social commentators that I’ve never been able to understand is that we American consumers have too much choice about what to buy. My response has always been: So, what’s wrong with that? I’m a picky shopper. If I want this particular shade of turquoise blue, not that one, for my new bathing suit, I’d like to have a manufacturer out there alert enough to offer my preferred color for sale. It’s tough enough at my age to have to display so much flesh in order to cool myself with a few laps in the summer without having to encase that flesh in a ghastly shade that makes me look as sallow as last week’s Easter lily.
Yet, as Virginia Postrel points out in her latest column for Forbes, liberals have been on a moral high horse for decades about U.S. consumer choice. Until a few years ago, the idea was that too much choice was economically inefficient, and that what we needed was socialist centralized planning that would clothe us all in Mao suits or pick out our furniture for us.
Now, centralized economies having gone the way of all other things Marxist, there’s a new meme: too much consumer choice makes us miserable. Postrel cites Barry Schwartz’s 2004 book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less as an example of this kind of thinking. Poor Barry: he goes to his local supermarket and notices that there are 230 different soups. And that in the dental floss aisle you can pick between flavored and unflavored, waxed and unwaxed. All this can mentally paralyze those whom Schwartz calls “maximizers”: folks who want to assure themselves that they’ve made the very best choice.
I know the feeling. When my husband and I go out to eat, I often look over at his plate and ask myself: Why didn’t I order the lamb chops the way he did did instead of those fish brains I got? Schwartz’s self-help advice is: Relax and reassure yourself that although you might not have made the very best choice, you’ve probably still made a pretty good choice. That sounds sensible: Enjoy the fish brains and order the lamb chops the next time around.
Trouble is, says Postrel, Schwartz, a professor at Swarthmore, has now decided to become a public policy guru, arguing that the government should step in to limit people’s choices. Schwartz’s suggestions: Bring back the steeply graduated personal income tax (with a 90 percent top rate), leaving people with less discretionary income, and do not under any circumstances privatize any part of Social Security.
Gee, great–have the government make all our decisions for us and we’ll be happy. Postrel comments:
“The fundamental problem with Schwartz’s critique, however, isn’t the author’s leftist preferences. It’s the difference between understanding the human mind and understanding market institutions. Psychology experiments often screen out the adjustments real people use to cope with choices, from brand loyalty to expert guidance. Markets, by contrast, produce not only more choice but also more ways to choose effectively.
“If having too many choices is overwhelming, that suggests a new round of entrepreneurial opportunities. Offer customers abundant choices, but also help them search. Amazon does that with its many recommendation services. So does TiVo. So do Home Depot’s Expo Design Centers, which offer interior design services along with hundreds of faucets and floor coverings.”
Meanwhile, I’ll settle for 230 different soups.