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Choice

The proliferation of choice was the focus of the August-September issue of Civilization, the magazine of the Library of Congress.

Former Department of Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich asked, “Can there be such a thing as too much choice?”

Articles by Reich, Nelson W. Aldrich Jr. and Martha Minow questioned the proliferation of choice and its effects on individual and corporate well-being.

Digital technology multiplies choices, Reich wrote. Consumers can order everything from tailored clothing to customized cars over the Internet. Reich noted over one billion Web sites now exist.

“When just about everything can be turned into digits and then rearranged into an almost infinite variety, the consumer is king,” wrote Reich. “But the consumer actually becomes a day laborer, breathlessly toiling to make sense of it all. More time and energy is spent deciding on the best deal than enjoying the purchase itself.”

This proliferation of choice, wrote Reich, stems from an unprecedented growth of capital which equates wealth with choice. Dissatisfaction with the public sector is one result, forcing more privatization of just about everything.

“‘Choice’ usually entails privatization,” wrote Minow, a Harvard Law School professor. “If what is ‘public’ becomes merely the choice of last resort, it loses the moral investment and stature that service to the entire community generates.”

Indeed, choice has become the hallmark of contemporary public reform: “school choice,” “charitable choice,” choice in health-care and a promise of choice in Social Security, Minow wrote in her article.

“It is time to reclaim the public and the common, if only to enable us to make deliberate choices about what kinds of choices we want, and in which domains we want them,” wrote Minow.

The array of choices holds cultural consequences, the authors wrote.

“The new technologies, combined with increasing middle-class prosperity and disdain for public institutions, are making fetishes out of tiny choices,” Reich wrote. “Unless we choose what kinds of choices we want to be faced with . . . we will soon drown in a rising tide of inconsequential options.”

Aldrich echoed Reich’s concerns about choice spun out of control.

“Making choices without consequences makes for inconsequential people,” wrote Nelson W. Aldrich Jr., Civilization’s editorial director.

Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.
Visit Civilization online at http://www.civmag.com/