Not Making the Choice

Mark Zuckerberg’s shirt made its rounds in the tech press recently. Zuckerberg isn’t the only tech mogul to wear the same outfit every day – Steve Jobs holds that title in perpetuity – but the rationale that Zuckerberg gave for why he does so is worth noting. Unlike Jobs, whose turtleneck was a branding symbol, Zuckerberg wears the same thing every day to cut the number of choices he has to make.

Granted, few people are industry magnates, but nonetheless choice-reduction strategies like these are increasingly popular, especially among the minimalist, design-obsessed, lifehacking labor aristocracy of the tech sector. This trend suggests something like “peak choice” – a maximum saturation of choice in people’s day-to-day lives, such that they need to start making choices about what they do and do not choose.

The policy work of Cass Sunstein carries a similar implication. Sunstein has spent several year advocating for a policy he dubs “paternal libertarianism,” “soft paternalism,” or, “nudging.” Rather than the hard paternalism of requirements and bans, nudging attempts to reshape the structure of decisions such that the default or easy choice to make is the best one in terms of welfare for the choice-maker. It’s an attempt to thread the needle between achieving the regulatory goals of the state on the one hand, and, to quote Sunstein, “preserv[ing] freedom of choice, and in that sense both autonomy and dignity” on the other.

Nudging’s libertarian preoccupations bring up some underlying questions: why is it that one must manipulate the architecture of choice in the first place? Why is this the means to better social outcomes? Why do people have so much trouble making decisions?

The way Sunstein, and much of behavioral economics, frames the choice problem implies people struggle with choice because they are bumbling hominids, reflexively reaching for fat and sugar and too distracted or illiterate to understand the implications of complex paperwork. Neoclassical economists talk about these poor choice-making tendencies in terms of time preference and discount function – a revival of the Benthamite notion of man-as-shopkeeper that Marx famously criticized. And while they talk as if they do, behavioral economists don’t reject it, rather, they qualify it. A tendency to make the wrong (economic) choice is simply part of human nature, and not a moral failure as libertarians would have it, but one fails to make the choice nonetheless. It doesn’t make much of a difference to acknowledge that Homo sapiens is not, in fact, Homo economicus when we still hold ourselves to the standards of the imaginary species.

Zuckerberg’s shirt and Sunstein’s nudging both signal that choice-making in contemporary society is not hampered just by human foibles, but by the sheer quantity of choices that people have to make. When the right to choose is sacrosanct, and when the bravest advance that can be made against choice is a Sunsteinian nudge, the choices people must make on a day-to-day basis multiply to the point where none of them get the proper attention. To reverse Corey Robin’s formula, neoliberal capitalism has converted ordinary unhappiness into the hysterical misery of making choices one doesn’t necessarily have to.

The only defense against this continual onslaught of choice-making is not the palliative nudge, but to argue that, in some cases, we shouldn’t have to make the choice. We need to recognize choice as a politically-contested category, one whose meaning changes depending on one’s place in society. In short, an anti-choice politics. Do the uninsured poor need healthcare options, or do they just need healthcare? One of the most exciting prospects of a universal healthcare system is the prospect of not having to worry so much about choosing. But while the benefits of not having to choose are nice for the middle class, they are immeasurably greater the poorer and the more time- and cash-strapped one is. Sufficient wealth, on the other hand, can preempt the choicemaking process entirely – one simply chooses the best (and usually most expensive) option available, or pays someone else to do it for them.

Similar to anti-work politics, an anti-choice politics would seek to break down a little-examined notion that nonetheless serves as a foundation for other political struggles. Choice is not only a capacity or a right, but a field whose boundaries define the struggles taking place on it. From healthcare to soda to prostitution, an anti-choice politics could bring clarity to debates in which the freedom to choose has muddied the waters.