The Delusion of Choice

“What you need is a gramme of soma.”
“All of the benefits of Christianity and alcohol without their defects.”
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul —
[This World is not Conclusion], Emily Dickinson

“‘When Bokonon and McCabe took over this miserable country years ago,’ said Julian Castle, ‘they threw out the priests. And then Bokonon, cynically and playfully, invented a new religion’” (p.172) — opens Chapter 78 of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.

Readers soon learn that Bokonon creates a religion “‘to provide the people with better and better lies’” (p. 172), foma, and a central aspect of that strategy involves the fabricated war between the government of San Lorenzo and the religion, Bokononism. Readers discover that this plan fails:

“But people didn’t have to pay as much attention to the awful truth. As the living legend of the cruel tyrant in the city and the gentle holy man in the jungle grew, so, too, did the happiness of the people grow. They were all employed full time as actors in a play they understood, that any human being anywhere could understand and applaud.” (pp. 174–175)

The false choice between McCabe and Bokonon in the other world created by Vonnegut happens to represent well the delusion of choice that exists in the U.S. (not to be examined here, but McCabe/Bokonon reflect the false choice currently in the U.S. between Republican/Democrat; it’s a fake fight, and a false choice).

This delusion, in fact, doesn’t even require the existence of choice — the word itself is nearly magical. But the choice that is the soma of American Myth tends to be binary and constrained, actually no real choice at all.

Should I buy an Accord or a Camry (no real difference, by the way)? But never, Should I even own a car?

And that constraint tends to lie within making sure Americans have no choice other than to work, work, work and thus participate fully in the great Free Market. This choice isn’t really about choice, but about keeping everyone busy and focused on choosing so that no one will consider the alternatives.

This dynamic plays out in the education reform debate through the emphasis on parental choice: that parents must have choice and that parents must know how to choose what education is best for their child.

Just as choosing between car models fails the larger freedom to choose, the school choice truism fails to acknowledge the possibilities of creating conditions that are beyond choice — conditions that make parents choosing what school is best unnecessary.

Many people living in poverty in the U.S. must choose between eating low-quality but cheap food or spending limited funds on more expensive but healthy food (and thus sacrificing other expenses). When do we ever discuss creating a world in which that choice isn’t needed, a world in which only healthy food is available and all food is affordable regardless of social class?

Is that really beyond the scope of a free people and the richest country in the history of humanity?

Probably not.

A a simple example, the South (mostly) has chosen not to play the toll road game, one in which people must choose between spending more money or more time. Many areas of the South have a large number of publicly funded roads (as a cyclist I ride for miles and never see a car, never see a house, but there is a road, usually well maintained).

That attitude toward roads rises above choice; open and available roads render choices between spending time or money irrelevant. But also, that was a choice, a culturally and regionally bound choice.

Idealizing choice and failing to unmask false choice are, ironically, failures of choice, the myopia created by the belief that choice is sacred, that choice is the only key to human freedom.

Although focusing on the UK, a 2014 study reveals a disturbing conclusion:

But in our new research we found that three and a half years after finishing university, graduates who attended private schools earn an average of 7% more per year than graduates who went to state school.

This could easily be interpreted as the need for choice so the superior private option could motivate the inferior public model to do better — if the consumers choose and create such pressure.

But, as the researchers explain about the complexities of these findings, we often fail to acknowledge that education (including how much achieved and what type of school attended) is often a marker for privilege, and that privilege or race is a stronger predictor of success (such as income) than any equal achievement (such as graduating college); see for example (from HERE, Fig. 1, and HERE, Fig. 2), the influence of class and race against educational attainment:

Figure 1. “Even poor kids who do everything right don’t do much better than rich kids who do everything wrong. Advantages and disadvantages, in other words, tend to perpetuate themselves. You can see that in the above chart, based on a new paper from Richard Reeves and Isabel Sawhill, presented at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s annual conference, which is underway.” Matt O’Brien

Figure 2. “On average, black families at a given level of educational attainment receive incomes that are just 66% of what white families at the same level of educational attainment receive. For Hispanic families, that figure is 79%. Naturally, when education-controlled income disparities like this exist, education-controlled wealth disparities will exist.” Matt Bruenig

Thus, if we remain committed to choice — that parents and students must have choice in order to spur higher quality education, that in turn will overcome social inequity (classism, racism) — we are not directly addressing class and race inequities, and thus allowing them to continue: Within class and race, education makes a difference, but education does not erase class and race inequities.

Again, we are committed to a false and misleading choice, and not creating a world where that choice isn’t needed once we have eradicated (mostly) classism and racism.

The soma of choice in the U.S. keeps us addicted to competing so that some may win — while excluding the possibility of collaborating so that all may thrive.

As we seek ways to create better education, we should stop demanding that parents and students have choice, and start demanding that no parents or children should have to choose. This is the sort of real choice a free people can and should make.

NOTE: See report by Richard Reeves and Isabel Sawhill identified in Figure 1.

See Also From Bruenig 2013:

Fig. 18. Bruenig: “Look at the red bar furthest to the right. That is the bar describing where kids born into the richest fifth who do not get a college degree wind up. Notice that 25% of those kids still wind up in the richest fifth. Now look at the blue bar furthest to the left. That is the bar describing where kids born into the poorest fifth who do get a college degree wind up. Notice that only 10% of those kids wind up in the richest fifth.”

Fig 3. Matt Bruenig concludes, based on data from the Pew’s Economic Mobility Project: “So, you are 2.5x more likely to be a rich adult if you were born rich and never bothered to go to college than if you were born poor and, against all odds, went to college and graduated….Therefore, the answer to the question in the title is that you are better off being born rich regardless of whether you go to college than being born poor and getting a college degree.”