The Paradox of Choice and the Meaning of Freedom

My wife has been enjoying the book The Paradox of Choice and I’m looking forward to reading it as well. The concept is simple: having more choices doesn’t always lead to more happiness. Often, it leads to paralyzed decision-making and discontent.

Here is the author’s presentation recently at TED, which gives a great summary of his key concepts:

I have one disagreement with Barry Schwartz in the video. He states at the beginning that maximizing individual freedom is a central tenet of western civilization, and that “the way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice. The more choice that they have, the more freedom they have, and the more freedom they have, the more welfare they have.”

I agree that maximizing individual freedom is a central tenet of Western civilization, but I think he has slightly misstated things thing when he says that this entails the idea that “the way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice.”

Many people believe that, probably. But that kind of freedom is not at the heart of Western civilization.

For example, the founders of this nation serve as a good representation, I would contend, of what the tenet of freedom means when it comes to the guiding principles of Western thought. And I don’t think that they saw the essence of freedom as maximizing choice.

The essence of freedom that was captured in the American Revolution and which, I would argue, is at the heart of Western society is rather the right to make your own decisions. The number of choices that you have is not ultimately relevant here. The main idea is that you get to choose, not the government or someone else.

You don’t need someone to provide you with a lot of options in order to be “free” in this sense. It’s about choosing your own path and making your own decision — and, if you think you don’t have enough options, finding a way and possibly creating more options yourself.

That’s the view of freedom that is at the heart of Western society. Schwartz is taking aim at another view of freedom — a very common one, and perhaps one that is pervasive and dominant at this current juncture in history and going back a generation or two, but not one that should be characterized as central to Western civilization per se.

The view of freedom that Schwartz is taking aim at here, which so values maximizing options, is in part behind a recent mutation of the original Western view of freedom. This mutation holds that if you don’t have health care, you aren’t free, or that if you don’t earn a “living wage,” you aren’t free, because both things limit your options. It is then implied that the government ought to provide these things for people, “in the name of freedom.”

Schwartz of course isn’t discussing that mutation on the concept of freedom. But I think it goes to show the importance of getting this term correct.

To conclude: I’m not against having lots of options; I just want to point out that the value of maximizing individual freedom does not depend upon the number of options you have. And it certain does not entail that we have a duty to maximize people’s options. Rather, it simply entails that we let people make their own decisions. This includes, of course, the decision to generate more options — as well as the decision, which Schwartz does a good job contending for, not to always seek out a wide range of options.

  • Gordon Cheng

    Hi, I enjoy your blog a great deal and link to it regularly, so I am really sorry to make my first comment a nitpick, but it is ‘tenet’ not ‘tenant’.

    Apart from that, keep up the great work.

    On the actual topic of ‘freedom’, I think that outside the Bible Martin Luther has the best and most memorable quote:

    A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.

    It’s from his treatise Concerning Christian Liberty.

  • Matt

    No problem. You’re right. I appreciate that. Fixed.

    Fantastic Luther quote.