You Choose, You Lose

Modern democracy means you have no choice


One of the most hallowed pageants of our modern democracy is happening today: the New Hampshire primary, a vitally important bellwether for major party nominees. Why, from this field of battle have ridden anointed such legends as Lyndon Johnson in '68, Edmund Muskie in '72, Gary Hart in '84, Paul Tsongas in '92, Pat Buchanan in '96, and John McCain in 2000.

This contest displays the vital, bloody, throbbing heart of what makes us great. The people listen, judge, gather, and participate in the process of choosing the leader of our great political parties. Somewhere down the line, that leader then does his best to ensure that we don't have a whole lot in the way of further choices to trouble ourselves with.

A tediously detailed nannying over personal choices has certainly helped define George Bush of late. He thinks athletes need to stop using steroids. His administration also thinks we shouldn't keep ourselves awake with ephedra, and has already banned it. And the Bushies continue to dishonor not only our personal choices, but political choices made on levels that they can't touch, like voter-approved medical marijuana.

The attack on choice is waged beyond just the political realm these days. Social commentators like Barry Schwartz aver that too much choice is just a big hassle—indeed, can produce "genuine suffering"—and gets precious pages in America's favorite Sunday supplement, Parade, for doing so.

Let it not be said that politicians are avoiding their duty to ameliorate such suffering as Schwartz notes. Among the guys fighting it out in New Hampshire today, Joe Lieberman—joined by the megastatists at the World Health Organization—hopes to regulate people's choices when it comes to marketing food he thinks is bad for us; Howard Dean is against too many choices when it comes to spending and advocacy in elections themselves; and of course not a one of the men fighting it out in New Hampshire wants to respect our choices in matters like where and how to spend or invest our money, what we want to ingest, or whom we wish to associate with in employment and business.

Politicians offer all the choice we need, as far as they are concerned. Indeed, today's show in New Hampshire is as dazzling a circus of electoral choice as we are permitted to have in a mostly two-party, heavily-regulated electoral arena. There's the Screamer, the Southerner, and the Only Guy With a Real Chance To Win (This role gets recast frequently, but someone always plays it.) Oh, there are even some other choices, for those eccentrics among you. American politics delivers the goods, in politicians as in toothpaste.

Choices galore, indeed. But once we've made that choice, that's about the last one they want us to have.

The range of choice that the modern state permits us—and these restrictions go far beyond just preventing us from bashing each others' skulls in as in some Hobbesian nightmare—just keeps shrinking and none of the "realistic" choices in the political arena ever give us a chance to opt out of that particular pattern.