Human dilemmas: Spoiled by choice – The perils and politics of prosperity

Published on The Economist, July 15, 2010.

THE more money you have, it seems, the more choice you have. And the more choice you have the happier you are. Or at least that is the theory, and if that proves not to be the case, it is your fault for making the wrong choices. Renata Salecl unpicks these axioms of modern life in a short and thought-provoking book. She shows that in large chunks of life, the simplistic search for the perfect choice is not only impractical, but leads to misery … //

… Even consumer choice is not all that it is cracked up to be. Ms Salecl highlights the anxiety felt by an ill-informed shopper faced with a bewildering range of options, and with the feeling of looming censure for the wrong one. Economists (a breed she regards with uniform disdain) would not necessarily disagree with that. Transaction and opportunity costs are well-researched topics. A speedy choice of cheese at a colossal supermarket display may not be the perfect one, but it does leave more time for enjoying it afterwards.

Ms Salecl’s exotic intellectual pedigree bears the unmistakable stamp of her native Slovenia, mixing the obscurity of Lacanian psychoanalysis with the glibness of the new left. Her Marxist-tinged choice of words will leave some readers fuming. She refers to “late capitalism” when the simple “modern life” or “modern world” would have been less emotive. She lazily cites Margaret Thatcher’s remark about there being “no such thing as society”, but ignores the rest of the quote, which praises human co-operation.

Yet her big point, that choice is not a goal in itself, is well-taken. Dominant ideas, including the welfare state, the classless society and the dictatorship of the proletariat, become so pervasive in their heyday that people often fail to ask what they really mean. Challenging the choices presented by life, and pondering why we make them, is more important than focusing just on what we are offered.

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