Monday, September 20, 2010

Culture Wars: The Paradox of Choice

Maximizers strive for the very best; satisficers settle for good enough. Economist Herbert Simon, who introduced the distinction, noted that the surest way to maximize well-being, was to satisfice, since the difference between best and good enough was usually not enough to offset the costs of search.

Maximizing however is a success strategy when it comes to socio-economic achievement: maximizers strive to get into the best schools and get the best jobs; they work hard and shop until they drop to assemble the perfect wardrobe and ideal suite of household furnishings. They are, therefore, disproportionately represented amongst the elite.

But maximizing has its downside. Faced with a bewildering range of choices, maximizers waste time and effort on search or become paralyzed by indecision. This is the ‘Paradox of Choice’: the more options maximizers have, the worse off they are.

Privileged Maximizers recognize the Paradox of Choice and seek out mechanisms for restricting their options. They strive to simplify their lives and shop from the pricey Hammacher Schlemmer Catalogue, which offers only products that Hammacher Schlemmer deems ‘the best’ of their kind.

Working class Americans aren’t troubled by the Paradox of Choice because they have few options. Their jobs provide little autonomy. And, economically strapped, they are spared the worry of choosing from amongst an endless range of consumer products. Frustrated, cramped and constrained, they jealously guard the few minor freedoms they enjoy.

Within American political discourse, the Right’s leitmotif is individual freedom. The Left plays a variant on this theme, suggesting that there is a trade-off between freedom and security, between the Right’s rugged individualism and the its own communitarian project, aimed at promoting the common good through cooperation rather than competition.

To privileged Maximizers, caught in an accelerating rat race and overwhelmed by consumer choices, the Left’s communitarian program is soothing. To working class Americans it feels stifling: they ache for more options, including the chance to compete in the rat race. They believe the Left is out to create a nanny-state, and hear its communitarian message as the voice of the schoolmarm: prohibiting rough play, forcing them to share, sliming them with smarmy pieties and stifling them with rules and regulations.

But the welfare state working class conservatives fear is precisely what expands citizens’ options and underwrites their freedom. State universities and student grants provide young Americans with a wider range of opportunities for education and training then most could otherwise afford. Government anti-discrimination regulations expand job options for women and minorities. Social safety nets guarantee that no one will be trapped with their back to the wall and no room to maneuver—forced to beg.

Being for the most part privileged maximizers, liberals don’t get it. They don’t understand what it’s like to have too few choices. They don’t understand what it’s like to spend the better part of their waking hours doing repetitive tasks under close supervision or to be poor. So they don’t understand why working class Americans are so desperate for freedom that they are taken in by the rhetoric of the Right.

But the Right does not deliver. And now that liberal upper middle class maximizers are suffering the consequences of conservative misrule, and are increasingly squeezed as their options diminish, maybe they are beginning to understand


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