By Mark C. Taylor

A response to a public conversation series held Spring 2012. 

How many different items does the average American grocery store stock?  (45,000)  How many Starbucks are there in Manhattan? (187 and counting) In the world? (17,244)  How many channels are there on your TV?  (You don’t know.)  We have become obsessed with choice — the more choices the better.  Or at least so it seems.  Why?  Why is there so much emphasis on choice and the supposed freedom of choice?

While the freedom of choice has long been one of the most important values for democratic societies, something has changed in the past several decades. What might best be described as an ideology of choice has emerged among the partisans of neo-liberal economists and neo-conservative politicians.  This development is symptomatic of the latest stage of capitalism.

For capitalism to thrive, markets must keep expanding, and there are only three ways for this to occur: spatially, temporally, and differentially.  When spatial expansion reaches its limit, markets expand by accelerating product cycles, and planned obsolescence goes into high gear.  The art of advertising is to create desire where there is no need.  But the speed of turnover is not enough to keep the engines of production and reproduction churning.  In an effort to increase profits, manufacturers create a proliferation of products until there is a frenzy of consumption that leaves everyone in debt.  At this point, capitalism’s engines and servers short-circuit — necessary expansion inevitably creates an excess that leads to the system to implode.

This collapse raises pressing questions. Is more choice always better?  Is choice that is forced on us really choice?  For whom is choice good?  The 1%?  The 99%? Why do the ideologues of choice promote it in the public sphere but deny it in the personal sphere?  Choice of schools, health care, retirement plans, but no choice when it comes to reproductive issues, for example.

The Burden of Choice was a year-long series of conversations devoted to a consideration of these questions that focused on four critical contemporary issues: philanthropy, guns, nuclear waste, and debt. The conversations were rich, probing and critical. All of the participants have extensive experience that provides an invaluable perspective on the complexities of these issues. Fresh out of Yale, Charles Best started teaching history at a Bronx public school only to discover that he did not have the supplies he needed to do his job.  With a group of his high school he started DonorsChoose.org, a thriving online program that matches the needs of public school teachers with individual donors who contribute the supplies and equipment. John Feinblatt is responsible for New York City’s extraordinarily effect gun control initiatives.  By taking a creative approach to interstate gun trafficking, he and his colleagues in the Mayor’s office have significantly reduced gun violence in the City. Allison Macfarlane is one of the leading critics of local, state, and federal policies — or lack of policies — on nuclear waste.  Her writings about the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste facility have been largely responsible for the Obama administration’s decision to put the project on hold. Michael Lewitt, a leading financial analyst, was one of the few to predict the 2008 market meltdown.  He maintains that the failure of individuals, companies, corporations and governments to learn the lessons from that experience make another catastrophe all but inevitable.

While all of the participants in these discussions agreed that the freedom of choice is important for democratic society and free markets, there was a consensus that the excessive veneration of unfettered choice reflects the loss of any sense of welfare in society as a whole.  Choice is never free but always has a cost – personally, educationally, socially, politically, economically and environmentally.  The ideology of choice places a significant burden on many individuals and institutions, some of which, paradoxically, are its most vocal proponents.

Mark C. Taylor is the chair of the Department of Religion and co-director of the Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life at Columbia University.