Among the themes to emerge from ‘happiness economics’ one seized on by those disapproving of open markets and the decision-making autonomy they may bring is that having ‘choice’ does not necessarily make people happy. In situations as diverse as choosing items from a restaurant menu to more complex decisions about which financial products to buy it appears that having ‘too many’ options may add to the burden of stress that people feel owing to the fear of making the ‘wrong choice’ or not the ‘best choice’. This finding is associated with Barry Schwartz and Sheena Iyengar. These writers do not themselves jump to suggest that governments reduce choice in order to make people happier (though in the case of Iyengar, this is not explicitly ruled out). They tend to prefer instead various ‘self control’ measures aimed at satisficing rather than maximizing decisions – strategies which are fully at one with a classical liberal focus on individual liberty. Others, however, in the ‘green’ and ‘anti-globalist’ camps (the New Economics Foundation in the UK springs to mind) do not hesitate in advancing their own pet plans to ‘increase happiness’ by restricting individual liberties in pursuit of an explicitly anti-consumerist and anti-market agenda.
As someone who verges on a panic attack whenever entering a furniture store I have some sympathy with the idea that having choices can induce stress. Even a moment’s reflection, however, should dispel the notion that governments can improve happiness by determining or shaping the amount of choice we have. Put at its simplest, if individuals are not to rely on ‘self control’ strategies in coping with the stresses that choices create then someone else must decide for them. If making choices for oneself is a stressful exercise, however, then deciding in addition what choices other people should have must be considerably more stressful for those making such decisions. This burden should be especially severe for people who are ‘altruistic’ in character and who care most about the effect of their decisions on others. If one takes some social democrats/communitarians seriously in their claim that people who work for the state are on average more ‘other-regarding’ than those in the private sector, then to require that public regulators decide how many and what kind of choices the rest of us should have would be to place an intolerable psychological burden on the individuals concerned. So great would be this burden that there is no reason to suppose that officials would choose in a manner that makes people happier. If, on the other hand, public officials are not in fact more ‘other-regarding’ and are prone to self-interested behavior (either in the narrow sense of monetary self-interest or the broader sense of seeking power over others to impose a personal ‘mission’) then they may feel little stress at the prospect of controlling the choices of others. Such people may, however, have only a limited sense of responsibility in trying to make the best choices for those in their charge. The debt creating spending spree that politicians are currently engaged in lends a certain degree of credence to the latter possibility.
In short, the burden of choice cannot be reduced by governmental action. Either we control our own choices or we must face the stress of knowing that authority over our lives is in the hands of people who may be ‘too stressed’ or ‘too selfish’ to act in our best interests – whatever those interests may be.