Financial Times
October 14, 2005


By James Harkin

Seven years ago, a skinny American political theorist called Barry
Schwartz strolled into The Gap in search of a new pair of jeans. It
took more time than he had bargained for. Schwartz had committed the
cardinal error of entering into dialogue with a salesperson, and was
in turn bombarded with a bewildering array of choices -- slim fit,
easy fit, relaxed fit, baggy, extra baggy. The selection was endless,
and, at least for a bookish social scientist such as Schwartz, more
than a little daunting. But he tried them all on, just in case.

Schwartz emerged from his afternoon in The Gap with a pair of "easy
fit" jeans and a grudge against the easy pervasiveness of choice in
contemporary societies. "Before these options were available," he
tells us on the second page of his cultishly influential book The
Paradox of Choice, "a buyer like myself had to settle for an imperfect
fit, but at least purchasing jeans was a five-minute affair. Now it
was a complex decision in which I was forced to invest time, energy,
and no small amount of self-doubt, anxiety and dread."

We might well be gifted with an abundance of options, he argues, but
that multiplicity of choice conceals within it hidden costs. Against
the ideology that glorifies our freedom to choose, Schwartz proceeds
to throw up all kinds of clever objections and disastrous consequences
- our indecisiveness and lack of information when faced with difficult
decisions, our regret when we make the wrong choices, the congestion
that can result when all of us want the same thing and our inability
to assess the risks associated with different courses of action.
Rather than being liberated by the banquet of choices available to us,
he concludes, we have become enslaved, tyrannised and paralysed by it.

Schwartz was right, at least, to say that he had better things to do
with his time than spend his afternoons shopping for jeans. His book
is an elegant introduction to the preoccupations of contemporary
social theory, one of the few works in the past decade to have broken
through the solid wall between developments in social science and the
ordinary reader.

It is vividly written and perfectly poised -- the very model of how to
introduce thorny economic concepts to the general reader. But it is
also flawed. Schwartz is right to argue that we face an abundance of
choices, but his book misunderstands which way the intellectual wind
blows. Our daily lives are buffeted by choice, says Schwartz, and this
state of affairs can be called consumerism. That much is true, but
consumerism -- a society based around mass consumption -- is as old as
the washing machine, and dates back 50 years to the birth of the
welfare state and the onset of the cold war.

What distinguishes contemporary society is less our lust for
consumption than the diffidence and lack of morale with which we roll
up to make our choices. If all of the books under consideration are to
be believed, the real debate to be had is about the complications that
arise from our abundance of choices. Far from being confident
consumers, they all agree, our decision-making as consumers is just as
often fraught, guilt-ridden, inept or plain wrong-headed.

The Paradox of Choice strikes at the heart of the "hard" social
sciences. It aims its daggers at the foundation stone that draws
together the disciplines of modern economics and political science,
the idea of the "utility-maximising consumer". This utility-maximising
consumer -- a consumer whose desires are not specified, other than to
say that whatever he wants he wants more of it -- bubbled up into the
rest of the social sciences from neo-classical economics at about the
same time as the economy of mass consumption in the years after the
second world war. It forged the beginnings of a new type of political
economy -- the so-called game theory, rational choice theory or public
choice theory. This was a distinctively North American discipline
which, over the past 50 years, has succeeded in drawing in other
logical models from mathematics and decision theory and then pushing
them out to become the most influential paradigm within the social

What is distinctive about Schwartz's argument is that he seeks to
undermine from within the whole idea of the self-interested, utility-
maximising consumer. Using some of the most celebrated research on the
theory of choice in the past 30 years, Schwartz argues that it ignores
the fact that the very act of maximising our desires tends to leave us
all worse off. It assumes, for example, that it is really rational to
want more of a substance rather than just enough; it assumes that we
are capable of making rational choices, and of taking responsibility
for those choices without regretting them later. Worst of all, it
assumes that we make choices as isolated individuals.

Drawing another trump card from the theory of choice, Schwartz argues
that many of the goods that we seek are positional -- having the best
haircut in the class or the nicest view of the lake from our country
house, for example -- which it is impossible for us all to achieve
because we are all pushing through the same narrow turnstile. This
ends up pitting all of us against each other, fruitlessly jockeying
for position.

The Era of Choice is not as polemical in its tone as Schwartz's book,
but it is even more eclectic in its intellectual influences. What
Edward Rosenthal wants to demonstrate in this volume is that the
ability to choose "has transformed what we are as persons and as a
society". It has not only moulded our lifestyles and our conception of
ourselves, he maintains, it has also worked quietly behind the scenes
to influence intellectual trends within science, the arts and the
humanities, making a contribution to the development of everything
from existentialism to postmodernism.

Rosenthal seems uncertain from when exactly he would date the "era of
choice" -- at different points he suggests that it began in the 1950s
or the 1970s. His book is a little flabby, with digressions into
everything from digital technology to "born-again virginity" which
sometimes fail to pay their way in insight. It is written at a
breathless intellectual pace, but it throws out so many ideas and
original suggestions that it's impossible to go away empty-handed.

As a management studies teacher, Rosenthal probably came to choice
through operations research, a rather shady-sounding discipline
invented during the second world war to help co-ordinate military
strategy, which subsequently became the basis for the modern science
of management. Our choices are at their most fraught when they have
outcomes that we cannot know in advance; what operations research has
donated to social theory is its highly sophisticated criteria for
judging risky decisions. Rosenthal is at his most readable when he
tries to use those logical models to explain how we take decisions
under conditions of uncertainty. Both he and Schwartz make much of the
idea that humans are not always adept at weighing up risks. We fear
getting into an aeroplane, for example, while at the same time we may
be happy to smoke ourselves to death.

More damagingly, both are alive to the fact that contemporary
societies appear to be intensely risk-averse when it comes to the
detrimental effects arising from human activity -- and, specifically,
the harmful effects posed by modern technology. In doing so, they are
borrowing from a fruitful body of work looking at decision-making
under uncertainty, pioneered by people such as Cass Sunstein.
Sunstein, a professor at the University of Chicago and one of the most
important contemporary political economists, has made it his mission
to understand better the anomalies that arise when the utility-
maximising consumer comes to make risky decisions. His latest tome,
Laws of Fear, is based on the Seeley Lectures that he gave at
Cambridge University last year, and is a good summation of his work.

Like Schwartz and Rosenthal, Sunstein prefers to think broadly. What
Sunstein calls the "salient sources of fear" include "terrorism, the
war in Iraq, global warming, crime, mad cow disease, water pollution
and genetic modification of food, among others".

The problem, as he sees it, is that at least in contemporary
societies, citizen-consumers suffer from systematic "probability
neglect", whereby they ignore the probability of harm and focus on the
worst possible outcome, irrespective of how likely it is to occur. A
principle that tries to cope with this kind of decision-making, and is
becoming increasingly influential, is called the precautionary
principle. Beginning in Europe, it has slowly colonised much of the
world and its governmental institutions, and is championed by many
environmentalists and some social democrats. Put simply, it suggests
that in risky situations we should fear the worst and then play safe.
Sunstein is sympathetic to many of the social and political issues
under consideration, but the burden of his book is to argue that the
precautionary principle is an incoherent and potentially dangerous
response to them. Once we admit that taking risks is a necessary part
of the human condition and that no choices are without risky
consequences, the precautionary principle cannot fail to be utterly
paralysing, he argues.

The idea of ourselves as utility-maximising consumers, it seems, is
not as healthy as it's cracked up to be. If the intellectuals are on
to anything, it has foundered on our fatigue, the complexity of the
decision-making process and our befuddlement when asked to assess

At the end of his heroic journey through social theory, Rosenthal
finds himself disillusioned with the whole idea of choice, urging us
to break out of this "vicious spiral" which is "occupying more and
more of our attention and our resources". Schwartz states, a little
baldly, that "we would be better off if we embraced certain voluntary
constraints on our freedom of choice, instead of rebelling against

Sunstein is cautious about the recent profusion of government public
health campaigns -- justified by the precautionary principle -- which
he says attempt to blunt the maximising desires of citizens by
pointing up the dangers involved in smoking, or drinking or eating too
much. Such campaigns, he points out, are tempted to scare us with
worst-case scenarios rather than rolling out the established risks.
Sunstein agrees that it is a dangerous game to play, but has no
objection to it in principle.

The idea of the utility-maximising consumer has its uses, but it turns
out to be too shallow a foundation on which to construct either a
social theory or a human identity. No sooner had the ideology of
consumer choice won the intellectual battle against its statist
competitors, it seems, than the cracks began to appear in its
intellectual offering. It is as if -- left to do its own thing -- the
whole idea of consumption over-vaulted itself and fell into a mire of
complexity and incoherence.

But there is cause for hope. None of the books under consideration is
written by an economist, yet all pay heed to the magnificent arsenal
of games and logical models made available by the new political
economy of choice. The solution to our dilemmas over choice and
decision-making, to paraphrase the economist Paul Samuelson in one of
the foundation texts of public choice theory, must be there somewhere
within the concepts. The problem is how to find it.

THE PARADOX OF CHOICE: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz
HarperCollins u7.99, 284 pages

THE ERA OF CHOICE: The Ability to Choose and its Transformation of
Contemporary Life
by Edward Rosenthal
MIT u20.95, 336 pages

LAWS OF FEAR: Beyond the Precautionary Principle
by Cass Sunstein
Cambridge University Press u15.99, 246 pages

Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2005