The Moral Case for Abundant Free Choice (AKA Liberty!)

Geeking Out Over Choice

In my daily quests to document and advance liberty in American culture, one theme I frequently uncover is the concept of choice. I geek out about the concept of choice because choice is a fundamental aspect of both individual liberty and economic liberty. I witness true beauty when your life choices align with your personal values (i.e. individual liberty) and when you voluntarily choose to trade with others to obtain the goods and services you deem valuable (i.e. economic liberty).

Choice is a fundamental aspect of both individual liberty and economic liberty. Click To Tweet

The beauty I see applies equally to choices big and small. It is beautiful when you freely choose where to live, what religious beliefs to embrace (if any), and what type car to drive. But it’s no less beautiful in my eyes when you freely choose what kind of beer to drink, which frozen pizza to eat, or what color stand mixer to purchase. Liberty is liberty, and it is beautiful.

Below are a few examples of choice I’ve documented so far this year. Beautiful!

Beauty or the Beast?

Yet not everyone finds beauty in choice. As I’ve learned firsthand through interactions with my friends on social media, some people think that too much choice is a bad thing. They suggest that too much choice confuses and tricks consumers, complicates the purchasing process, increases buyers’ remorse, and makes for poor uses of available resources. They tap into the spirit famously espoused by former 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who suggested “You don’t necessarily need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants or of 18 different pairs of sneakers when children are hungry in this country.”

Those who antagonize the concept of choice are, of course, are entitled to their opinion – and some of their opinions are not without evidence (although that evidence is questionable). Whatever the case, let me clarify the fact that I’m not mad at them for raising different points of view. Quite the opposite. I’ve honestly appreciated their feedback on my posts because it’s made for some great conversations!

But there are two critical questions that must be considered in the course of those conversations. First, if there is such a thing as “too much choice,” then how much choice is “the right amount” of choice? And second – a question of utmost importance – who gets to decide the answer to the first question?

Ironically, the answer to that second question is limited to exactly two choices: either 1) the free marketplace will “decide” how much choice is the right amount of choice by aggregating the diffuse, organic demands of we individual consumers, or 2) an agent of government will exercise concentrated power to arbitrarily decide how much choice is the right amount of choice and impose their decision onto society.

Choice #1 enhances your liberty. Choice #2 hinders it. Here’s why:

Choice #1: The Right Amount of Choice is Determined by the Free Marketplace

Choice #1 lets you be you in ways big and small without interfering with anybody else’s ability to do the same. If individual consumers are free to demand goods and services in the marketplace which align with their personal values, and if suppliers are free to voluntarily respond to those consumer demands with supply, and if the trades that occur between these consumers and suppliers are happen without government subsidies, then “the right amount” of choice is determined naturally and organically through voluntary cooperation in the marketplace. There is no heavy hand to judge amount of choice available to individual consumers as good, bad, too plentiful, or too meager; rather, the market simply provides choices to the extent consumers demand them.

Choice #1 enhances liberty because it celebrates the uniqueness of all individuals. Take clothing for example. The way we dress is an intensely personal choice, is it not? I prefer to dress in ways that are pretty clean cut. (My natural impulse to tuck in my shirts is so intense that it became a running joke among me and my buddies in college.) Maybe you like to dress the same way.

But maybe you don’t! Maybe you prefer clothes with a southwestern flare. Or maybe you’re a hipster. Or goth. Or into hip hop. Or maybe you’re like a former coworker of mine who preferred to wear a plain black t-shirt and blue jeans every single day of the workweek. However you prefer to dress, Choice #1 empowers you to freely express and act upon your demand (through your purchasing decisions) for certain styles of clothes. Choice #1 allows you to assert your individuality. It clearly enhances your individual liberty and economic liberty.

And I think that’s beautiful.

Choice #2: The Right Amount of Choice is Determined by an Empowered Agent of Government

Choice #2, on the other hand, suggests that government agents can wield concentrated power to produce “better” outcomes than those naturally and organically produced through voluntary cooperation in the free marketplace. With or without malice, Choice #2 disdains your individuality because it’s impossible for government to understand, appreciate, or act upon the intricate preferences which make you your unique self.

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Choice #2 necessarily embraces a utilitarian spirit. To continue the clothing example, Choice #2 operates in the mentality that clothes are clothes. A shirt covers the upper half of your body. It protects your skin from the sun. It keeps you warm in the winter. You need one for each day of the week with maybe one extra. Seems perfectly reasonable, no?

A government agent might analyze your needs in exactly this way and authorize the creation of eight types of shirts, deeming that amount to be the “right amount” of choice. And that’s the end of the conversation. Don’t like it? Call your congressman. Or your lobbyist. Or illegally trade for shirts of other styles on the black market. (But don’t wear those illegal shirts outside of your home because you might end up in jail, right?)

Choice #2 seems ridiculous because it is ridiculous. It hinders individual liberty and economic liberty. If you value liberty, Choice #2 should turn your stomach. It certainly does mine.

But wait! Might the government agent allocate resources more efficiently? The “poor use of resources” bit of the anti-choice argument is rubbish. First of all, what is useful and what is wasteful? And secondly – again – who gets to decide what is useful and what is wasteful? Through freely established prices, the free marketplace does an excellent job at allocating resources efficiently based on consumers’ demands and suppliers’ supply. This specific topic is grand enough in scope to warrant its own future blog post – but until that post is written, check out the I, Pencil video seen here for more information on how the market efficiently allocates resources.

Questions of Morality

So what do you think? Is choice beautiful, or is it a beast? If you ponder these ideas long enough, you’ll eventually come to realize that you’re actually pondering a question of morality: is liberty itself morally right or morally wrong?

Is it right for you to be who you are? Or is it right for you to be a cookie-cutter replica of everyone else in society?

Is it right for consumers to be free to express their demands for goods and services in the marketplace? Is it right for suppliers to be free to voluntarily respond to consumer demands? Or is it right for so-called “experts” to dictate what will be available for purchase in the marketplace?

I maintain that liberty is morally right even if the concept of choice is inevitably accompanied by certain problems. Because – just as Thomas Jefferson expressed back in in 1791 – “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than those attending too small a degree of it.”

Too much choice. Too much liberty. What great problems to have in this exceptional 21st century American life!

Discuss!

Is choice a good thing or a bad thing? Should the free market determine the amount of choice available to we consumers, or should the amount of choice be arbitrarily regulated by government? Do your opinions on these questions change one way or the other in any particular circumstance? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below?

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Ross Brown
President at LTP

I’m a 2007 Luther College grad trying to make the most out of every day. I enjoy spending time with my family, charcoal grilling, downhill skiing, double IPAs, fine scotch, going to church, jogging, Texas Holdem, fishing, reading, and watching the Green Bay Packers dominate the NFL.


I’m passionate about passion. Whatever you’re passionate about, go do it!