Free to Not Choose

Can we better our circumstances by restricting our choices?


The rhetoric was clearly absurd, yet it had the strange assurance of familiarity. I'd heard things like it so often, it sounded like it must be true.

It was in an article in yesterday's Los Angeles Times's health section, about portion sizes in America, by reporter Alice Lesch Kelly. McDonald's recent decision to eliminate "supersizing" as a menu option was, Kelly reports, part of "an effort to…offer a balance of choices for customers." This is somewhere between the tribute that vice pays to virtue and newthink: McDonald's knows that its customers want more choices, so it has to evoke the glories of choice even while restricting it.

But do we really—really really really—want more choices? Some would argue, with decent evidence, that the answer is no. Aren't there levels, either deep or lofty, on which it is to our advantage to have fewer choices? After all, as all people whose chins aren't so bulky as to block the newspapers on their laps know, Americans are battered by a gooey wave of obesity, apparently beyond their control. Perhaps we are so unable to avoid gustatory temptation that we are better off making higher-level decisions to deny ourselves even the ability to make eating choices that we know are bad for us? Might those plastic-hatter anti-teleologists, Devo, have been correct when they declaimed, more in sorrow than in anger, that freedom from choice is what we want—even as, alas, capitalism and modernity condemned us to a future of endless freedom of choice?

Clearly, if paradoxically, the choice to restrict choices is a metachoice highly valued by many. What else, after all, is that precious political gift of constitutionalism other than we the people binding ourselves to a certain set of rules, restricting our ability to make political choices outside of them?

Dietician Lisa Young of New York University is one of L.A. Times reporter Kelly's main sources, and she gets the last word in the article: "What I would really like is to see them get rid of those obscenely large sizes… You don't need a 20-ounce Coke bottle." While I am unremittingly hostile to everything she stands for, as evidenced in this article, I was overcome with a surprising burst of fellow feeling for Young when I came across this capper quote.

Human beings are not machines working on any kind of pure logic of choice in reality. Our choices are alternately guided and constrained by the options the world presents to us, in ways that will often make sense only to ourselves, and sometimes not even to ourselves. While I usually either welcome or blithely ignore the ability to eat big (I'm a confirmed buffet man, but as a sign at a buffet I frequent asks, are you really enjoying the buffet if you are in pain when you walk away?), I, too, have joined the chorus of laments of the anti-big portion crowd as regards the mysterious rise of 20 ounces as the standard single-serving size for soft drinks. When I grew up (when TV shows were all funnier, Rob Liefeld-style art had not yet ruined superhero comics, the world was made of tasty, spreadable butter, the sun felt like delightfully warm kisses on the skin, and the skies were not cloudy all day) you had 12 ounce cans as the standard and tall 16-ounce glass bottles as the choice for the indulgent. The latter seems to have disappeared entirely, at least from any convenience store I've frequented in the past few years. And while the 12-ounce can is still around I usually find the brand and flavor selection in that size far smaller than in the 20 ounce.

I will never buy a 20 ounce plastic bottle of soda if I can help it. Thankfully, the world of the typical mini-mart is an arena of unfettered choices (most of them bad) that would make any fussy nutritionist want to lock us all up for life, and for our own good. So I go for the fountain soda, usually in the 32-ounce cup size, which I can dilute with the proper amount of ice (somewhere between one-half and three-fourths full, better to err on the side of more ice.) Twenty ounces is simply too much undiluted soda, especially at the not-nearly-cold-enough temperatures of the typical mini-mart refrigerator case. From this habit, I've learned that the nutritionists are right about this much: If we have access to more, we will often consume it, even if we don't "really" need it or in some Platonic sense "really" want it. If I have the full fountain cup, I'll suck on it until it's gone, more out of habit than desire for more watery old soda.

The cold rationalist might say I could throw away a still-full fountain drink at any time, or buy a 20 ounce and drink to my fill, or until it got too warm for my taste, and toss it. But something beyond simple rationality makes me refuse to do that. I have a metadesire to finish what I start, or to get my money's worth, that overwhelms satiation per se.

So why isn't Young right? Why wouldn't it be a utilitarian victory for the greater good just to make the things disappear? If someone desperately needed or truly wanted the 20 ounces, they could buy two 12-ounce cans, right? And the weak-willed would be saved from early onset diabetes in droves.

Certainly, the choice to restrict oneself from choice is a valuable and important part of the human arsenal of, um, choices by which to create as optimal a life as our limited time, attention, and will can allow. And not just on the political level, as in constitutionalism. Consider marriage, diets, throwing out the TV. These are valuable, although choice-restricting, ways of making statements about ourselves, not only to ourselves but to the world. Sure, we could just cleave unto one love and forsake all others as a private decision renewed daily, refight battles of the bulges anew at each groaning buffet table, or just not turn on the TV. But metacommitments meet a human need and indeed help us live up to our own sense of our better, more appropriate selves.

Why not, then, institute such metacommitments, such metachoices, socially? Isn't it the same noble constitutionalist impulse that prompts nutritionists to cheer the departure of supersizing as an option, to lead teachers unions to declare the "choice" of voucher programs dangerously destructive to the larger good of public education, to lead antimonopolists to plump against "bundling," whether it be in computer software options or broadband, as a mere method of multiplying sinister corporate power?

These analogies run up against the dilemmas of moral philosophy divorced from property and rights. Sure, it can be an unalloyed good to pre-empt your own choices—as in the case of marriage and diets—or the choices about what the state can do to others—as in constitutions. But restricting the choices that others can make with their own lives or property—as anti-obesity activists and those fighting against the principle of educational vouchers or "bundling" do—is the wrong choice. Not because it wouldn't in some cases lead to "positive outcomes," even from any given individual's perspective, but because it involves trying to control what's not yours. And that simply should not be an option.