Conservatives and libertarians are all about more choices, because more choices means more freedom. The facts disagree. (More)

Progressive Puzzle Pieces, Part II – Choice and Freedom

This week Morning Feature will try to assemble the pieces we’ve covered over the past two months in series on Exiting the Crisis, The Darwin Economy, Nudge, Class Matters, The Empathy Gap, and Republic, Lost into a progressive big picture. Yesterday we considered the free market dogma as argued by Andrew Napolitano, and why selfishness does not maximize the common good. Today we review why maximizing choices does not improve our lives, and why we need nudges toward better decisions. Saturday we’ll conclude with issues of class, empathy, and Congress.

“You would be able to choose from among corporations!”

During Andrew Napolitano’s extended interview on The Daily Show, host Jon Stewart asked why Napolitano trusts corporations over government. The former judge and current Fox News host replied: “Why would you go to a [bad] corporation? You would be able to choose from among corporations!”

Napolitano’s libertarian presumption – shared by conservatives, at least on economic issues – is that “more choices is better.” Even bad choices should remain available, because the ability to make even bad choices maximizes “freedom.” Consider this argument by Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute:

For too long, both liberals and too many conservatives have attempted to impose on people the government’s standards of what is best for them rather than leaving them to their own decisions, merely because those decisions may be mistaken. That is the real legacy of the welfare state as expanded by President Obama and as it has been practiced on a bipartisan basis for the last half century or more: We are, quite simply, less free.

Tanner goes on to argue that government regulation of health insurance “determine[s] which medical conditions and eventualities you must insure against, even if you would prefer not to cover such conditions,” that “government-run anti-poverty programs limit your ability to support the charity of your choice,” and that Social Security “prevents people – especially poor people – from saving and investing for their own retirement in ways that would allow them to build real, inheritable wealth.”

All of this presumes that people will make good choices, or that so few people will make bad choices that society need not fret about them. If only….

“I’m so glad now that I fit in when I was 12.”

According to a Centers for Disease Control study reported in WebMD news, the number of Americans who smoke dropped below 20% in 2008. In 1965, when the CDC began keeping records, the percentage was 42%.

According to Dr. Matthew McKenna at the CDC, “We think the proportion is dropping because of excise taxes that make cigarettes more expensive, smoke-free laws [that apply to most workplaces], and the availability of counseling and medications.”

Tom Glynn at the American Cancer Society was even more direct, saying “major progress is being made in the government’s war on smoking.”

Michael Tanner argues government shouldn’t fight that war, and that smoking is one of those bad choices individuals should be left free to make on their own. Perhaps he should talk to the woman who wrote this reply to a teen who asked if he/she should start smoking to fit in with a friend:

When I was 12, I started smoking because my best friend smoked, It’s 43 years later. She’s quit, I haven’t been able to, and I have emphysema. My friends don’t come over because my house smells like smoke. I can’t go out much because I can’t deal with the heat and pollen in the air that makes my breathing even worse. If I go to someone’s house or a restaurant, or any place, I have to go outside alone to smoke.

I’m so glad now that I fit in when I was 12.

The limits of willpower

A libertarian would probably argue that this writer could have quit smoking if she wanted. Her friend did. Many other Americans have. She just needs more willpower. But as we saw in The Empathy Gap, cognitive science shows that willpower has its limits. That research, and studies cited in Nudge, showed that humans are prone to predictable mistakes. We overvalue short-term pleasures and conveniences, and undervalue long-term risks and opportunities. We follow the herd. We resist or ignore opportunities to change.

Our brains evolved to solve problems in the Here and Now, relying on immediate feedback from our decisions to change or refine our choices. We use different parts of our brains to solve problems in the Here-and-Now or the There-and-Then, and the Here-and-Now part of our brains includes the pleasure centers. Solving a Here-and-Now problem satisfies us in a way that working at a There-and-Then problem can’t. Even if you know the hamper will be full again next week, you may feel good when put away the last of the laundry. You may get a similar feeling when you open a 401(k), but you won’t get that same feeling with each monthly contribution. Our brains simply aren’t wired to feel pleasure from that kind of task.

So we make predictable mistakes, and keep making those predictable mistakes, even when we know better. Even when we wish we had never started a bad habit like smoking, or wish we had started a good habit like saving for retirement long ago. In a contest between willpower, neurobiology, and cultural influence, willpower is vastly outnumbered. We can and do make choices, but as J.D. Trout wrote in The Empathy Gap: “Free will is a bit like a sheep. There really is an animal there, but it’s amazingly skinny when you’ve shaved all the wool off.”

What … or when … is “freedom?”

But what about “freedom?” When progressives advocate employing government to help us make better choices, do we advocate – as Milton Friedman charged – “dictatorship, benevolent and maybe majoritarian, but dictatorship nonetheless?”

The answer depends on how you measure “freedom.” Or, more correctly, on when.

Is freedom the liberty to pile one predictable mistake upon another until we are crushed by the weight of our past choices, except for the fortunate few who have the resources to recover from their errors? If so, then libertarians safeguard “freedom.” But if freedom is the liberty to look back over our lives – ten or twenty or forty years hence – with better health, better savings, and more hope in our futures … then progressives support “freedom” far more than do libertarians.

The woman who began smoking at 12 to fit in with her friend would be freer now had she never started. And thanks largely to government anti-smoking efforts, far fewer young Americans make that mistake.

Libertarians look at the freedom to smoke and call that “dictatorship.” Progressives look at freedom from smoking … and call that “good government.”

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Happy Friday!