Free to Wimp Out?

I received the June issue of Reason magazine recently, and it contains an article by Virginia Postrel. An example, though she is no longer editing the magazine, of why you should subscribe.

Reason does post its material online after awhile, but you shouldn’t have to wait for it to become available.

I also highly recommend Postrel’s blog and her excellent book The Future and its Enemies.

Postrel’s Reason column is titled Consumer Vertigo and discusses whether having over 700 choices of fresh produce, or 14 varieties of feta cheese in your supermarket – or having the ability to order a “nonfat decaf iced vanilla latte” at your local Starbucks – represents too much choice.

Some think it does.

Postrel is prompted to this discussion by two books. The featured target is The Paradox of Choice, by Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz.

Schwartz argues that we have too much choice for our own good.

For example, he complains that buying jeans at The Gap requires “an unnerving amount of self-awareness.”

No comment. … No, I take that back. As we will see, it is exactly Schwartz’ overwhelming, if misappropriate and stunted, self awareness that creates his difficulty.

At The Gap, he has to decide between “easy fit” and “relaxed fit” and is challenged by what his decision about a marketing department’s word choice says about his level of fitness.

He decides “Relaxed fit” says he’s “getting soft in the middle”.

He decides some label, attached by an anonymous sewing machine, is critical to his self image.

What a wimp. What a marketer’s dream.

He pines for the days when buying jeans only took 5 minutes and did not substantially challenge his Ivy League intellect. He acknowledges that “consumers have varied tastes and body types”, but Postrel detects his suggestion that “ill fitting jeans are a small price to pay for simplicity.”

I think perhaps it is a fitting price to pay for pointy-headed statist sentiment.

Postrel quotes Schwartz as saying The Gap has made buying jeans “a complex decision in which I was forced to invest time, energy, and no small amount of self-doubt, anxiety and dread.”


To avoid possibly uncontrollable laughter, I bite my tongue every time I consider his dread.

At this point, it is probably not a mystery that Schwartz is an advocate for “intervention” intended to save you from recapitulating his personal angst at The Gap.

Contrariwise, my own experience is that many females, at least, persistently welcome such shopping choices and derive substantial pleasure from the “hunt” (or maybe the “gather”). My wife’s unextinguished hope that I might share such pleasure after 36 years of marriage is just one example.

I would severely discount Barry Schwartz’ shopping anxiety if I were running The Gap.

The important question regarding Schwartz’ psychological fitness for his life-work and, in fact, his grip on reality is this: If he’s so discomfited, why is he shopping at The Gap?

I have never been in a The Gap – even with my wife. I have never been faced with self-doubt when asked to choose “relaxed” or “easy” fit, because I do not carefully peruse the labels. As far as I can tell, the pants are brought to me by the letters “L” and “W”.

I admit I already had more than enough choices in shopping for jeans in 1965, but I still can buy jeans in 5 minutes; and if Schwartz can’t, I feel no pity. More like contempt.

For many years I didn’t even try the pants on, and I view the recent wisdom of doing this not as a consequence of mind-boggling choice, but as a drawback of age and mean time between purchases of jeans.. I am getting soft in the middle. So what? My choice in that is quite constrained.

Barry Schwartz should get a grip, it isn’t as if either of us will be 18 again for our 40th High School re-union because we buy “easy” instead of “relaxed”.

Put simply, I’m not the raving narcissist that Barry Schwartz is. He has apparently missed the fact that he has a choice about whether he shops at The Gap or not. A choice apparently involving masochism.

Schwartz’s book does touch on some fascinating studies of consumer behavior. For example; is there a difference in jam purchasing behavior related to the number of choices of jam at a supermarket free sample tasting table? Do more people stop at the table with more jams in the first place?

The interesting bits, however, do not make up for Schwartz’ unexamined faith in his own importance.


Who but a professor doing research would even stop to consider that there are almost 300 different cookie options to choose among?

Who indeed? And Postrel nails him for this elitist buffoonery:

And who but a polemicist pursuing an argument would completely ignore … [the fact that in] a familiar environment people aren’t overwhelmed by choice[?] … Schwartz may have trouble in The Gap, but a teenager who owns nine pairs of jeans doesn’t.

Schwartz’ prescription for us is illustrated in this statement:

…the proliferation of choice in our lives robs us of the opportunity to decide for ourselves just how important any given decision is.

Maybe for Schwartz this is true, but it would be cruel to point it out.

Postrel is practically forced to state the obvious in response:

To the contrary, only the proliferation of choice gives us the opportunity to make the decisions we individually deem most important. … [F]ree individuals voluntarily limit their options all the time.

Ultimately, the debate about choice is not about markets but about character. Liberty and responsibility really do go together; it’s not just a platitude. The more freedom we have to control our lives, the more responsibility we have for how they turn out. In a world of constraints, learning to be happy with what you’re given is a virtue. In a world of choices, virtue comes from learning to make commitments without regrets. And commitment, in turn, requires self-confidence and self-knowledge.

Emphasis mine.


“We are free to be the authors of our lives,” says Schwartz, “but we don’t know exactly what kind of lives we want to ‘write’.’” Maturity lies in deciding just that.

She might have added, “Maturity lies in recognizing that what kind of lives we want is a personal choice – not to be left to Swarthmore psychologists.”