Freedom of choice is a basic American liberty fought for by generations of Americans who had little choice themselves. As America rose to super power status and won the Cold War, freedom of choice took an interesting turn to what sociologist Barry Schwartz termed the “paradox of choice”: an abundance of wealth gave us so many choices we became paralyzed by “anxiety and perpetual stress.” Today, however, we have reached a new locus in the evolution of choice in America: the delusion of choice.
Choice, once scarce, achieved ubiquity as our fight for liberty colluded with natural resources, technology, and luck to produce unimaginable fortunes that assured a seemingly endless range of options. America arrived at a place where the impossible became mundane and each roll of the dice faced less and less risk. However, consequences are also ubiquitous, even though they seem to disappear in the fog of wealth. Too many choices not only produce stress, as Schwatrz observes, it slowly degrades our capacity for critical thinking—of discernment. Firing our guns requires less aim when both ammunition and targets are abundant. And, the illusion of permanence—of never-ending limitless options—resides easily in the lap of denial.
For the first time in roughly twenty-five years we are facing, once again, limits of choice. Preferred options are unavailable due to scarcity of resources and will. Yet, we face healthcare reform with the stubbornness of a spoiled child—we are determined to spend more and cover more without facing the reality that the system remains unchanged; financially and morally unsustainable. We delude ourselves that the so-called ‘reforms’ will actually reduce the deficit and result in no new taxes. We double our bet in the intractable quagmire in Afghanistan while having no definition of victory and no prospective government to steward our investment once we leave the table—a bet, incidentally, financed by an emerging loan shark called China. We read reams of data on climate change and chant “Drill, baby, DRILL!” Popular illusions are quickly becoming delusions.
Our freedom of choice became a paradox of choice and, finally, our favorite delusion. Discipline, discernment, and responsibility will return in time, however, as crisis wins its arm wrestle with denial. Each of us need to question decisions made, votes cast, and resources expended to reign in delusion. We need to face the obviousness of our circumstances with a renewed commitment to curiosity, humility, and resolve to wrest our future liberties from those who unwittingly place them in peril.