Use the Schwartz, Lone Starr!

OK, am I being fair to Schwartz? There's obviously a sense in which someone who gets married is less free. What sense is that?

First, what are our main options for the meaning of 'freedom' here?

(1) Freedom as objective opportunity/ability.

(2) Freedom as lack of coercively imposed constraint.

(3) Freedom as a lack of culturally (but non-coercively)imposed constraint.

(4) Freedom as a psychological sense of openness.

The only sense in which a person who gets married is unambiguously less free is (3). Part of the social function of marriage is to end the search for mates and to create a stable basis for raising children, and so sexual and emotion fidelity is generally expected of married people. Infidelity has real negative social costs, given the prevailing cultural dispensation, and so the prospect of facing those costs is generally a real constraint.

Now, (3) often leads to (4), but need not, for two reasons. One, I may not really care about the social costs. Suppose that this is because I have an “open marriage.” So I'm married, but the general social meaning of marriage carries less weight with me. Because it's OK with my partner, I'm always on the prowl, and so I maintain (4), the sense of openness. Two, I may have no interest whatsoever in infidelity, just as I may have no interest in drinking a Tab cola. I want my wife, and no other, and so there is nothing that I want that is out of reach. If there was a social taboo against drinking Tab, my psychological sense of openness would be unaffected.

In comments below, R.J. Lehmann gives us this line from Larry David:

Who do you think has more freedom — the married man in America, or the single guy in Communist China? I gotta go with the Chinese guy. Yes, I can leave the country…but I can't leave the house. He can leave the house, but he can't leave the country. I'll take his deal.

Part of the humor is, I guess, in the equivocation between senses of 'freedom'. The Chinese guy is unfree in sense (2). He'll got shot if he tries to leave. Larry David is unfree in sense (4). He feels a psychological lack of openness simply because of his internalization of his wife's expectations. She'll kvetch if he leaves. Obviously, however, there is no broader cultural norm dictating whether or not it is acceptable for him to leave the house. And there is no coercive sanction. And he is perfectly able to get up and walk out. The only unfreedom here is a consequence of Larry David's neurotic relationship.

Now when Schwartz asks whether we have too much choice, what he is he asking? In part, I think he's asking whether we have too much freedom in sense (4). In a market society, our objective opportunities proliferate, increasing freedom in sense (1). When I represent all those opportunities to myself, the sense of openness (4) can be overwhelming. Schwartz seems to me to be saying that if I have “thick” social ties, then the obligations and social constraint (unfreedom in sense (3)) that make those ties thick will narrow my sense of what is really open to me, reducing my sense of freedom in sense (4), but also relieving my sense of anxiety about the overwhelming scope of choice.

So, in this scenario, I will be less free, in senses (3) and (4), but better off. Notice that this leaves freedom in senses (1) and (2) unaffected.

However, Schwartz also seems to blame the anxiety of too much (4) on too much (1). Now, this wouldn't be such a problem if less (3) helped us manage too much (4). But he also seems to think that too much (1) erodes our ability to maintain the thick relationships that lead to less (3). So we are left in a condition where we have a huge amount of objective opportunities. Some of these opportunities seduce us into dissolving our thick bonds. And then we are left with an overwhelming sense of openness, with no basis in convention or social obligation to help us to manage it.

What to do, then? Pull policy levers that reduce freedom in sense (2) in order to slow down the growth of (1) and to foster choices that lead to thicker relationships, thereby reducing (3) and the anxiety of (4).

Now, Schwartz is never clear about which sense of freedom he is employing at any given time. And he allows its meaning to float around, so that we encouraged to think that if too much freedom in sense (4) is troubling, then we shouldn't be so adamant about preserving our freedom in sense (2). I object to the slide.

In The Paradox of Choice itself, Schwartz's “What Can We Do?” section is full of individual psychological strategies for managing the sense of being overwhelmed by choice, and the sense of regret from all the trade-offs plenitude entails. This is all excellent advice. But elsewhere he is quick to offer political strategies for managing the woes of choice. In this TNR piece he tells us that his research justifies socking it to the rich.

if people already have more choices in life than they can handle, then adding wealth only exacerbates the problem. Conversely, it should be possible to make the rich better off by reducing their wealth . . .

The point is simply that we now know there is some significant subset of people likely to be made better off through heavier taxation, and that these people reside at the top end of the wealth distribution. Given that a concern for people's welfare has traditionally been one of the chief moral objections to taxing wealth (at least among those sympathetic to redistribution in principle), a policy of heavier taxation for the very wealthy may be the only moral course of action.

The slide to reducing freedom from coercion from data about an overwhelming sense of psychological openness is really THAT quick.

Now, what I meant by counterposing Schwartz with Browne is a contrast in attitude toward the idea of an “encumbered self,” to use Michael Sandel's term. I think this issue deserves its own post, since I think it may take me a bit of space to work out my inchoate thoughts. But my idea is that Schwartz and Browne represent a false choice about our attitude toward encumbrance.

The idea of encumbrance is that our identities are in part constituted by the nature of our relationships, our membership in communities, and the beliefs and commitments we inherit through these. Communitarian republicans, like Sandel, tend to celebrate the encumbered self, and to promote the idea that our membership in a nation state also carries with it thick obligations of solidarity. I sense, perhaps wrongly, that Schwartz is operating within this universe of thought. He seems sort of delighted in the cleverness of arguing that higher taxes would make the rich happier. His delight stems from the fact that he thinks they should feel obligated to pay high taxes anyway, out of a sense of solidaristic political obligation, and he's happy to have another argument to that conclusion. He's also delighted that the evidence points toward the benefits of thick relationships on well-being.

Browne is motivated by a kind of horror of encumbrance. Relationships, conventional systems of rules, communities, families, etc., that we didn't voluntarily opt into are characterized as autonomy threatening “traps”. Self-liberation consists in extricating yourself from these traps and becoming a truly unencumbered self.

Now, it seems to me that the right view has got to be that many inherited encumbrances are in fact oppressively restrictive — many kinds of relationships are predatory, parasitic, and impede the development of our individual potential. Reading Stirner or Browne or Rand is so bracing largely because they make this so clear. But then again many “thick” relationships and obligations truly are identity constituting, and are necessary for the realization of ones goals and capacities. In which case the self isn't encumbered, exactly, but simply enabled and fulfilled. What matters is the quality of our attachments, not whether or not to have them.

Part of my problem may be that my menu of the senses of 'freedom' is too short. I found C. Fred Alford's account of Iris Murdoch's notion of freedom as “seeing correctly clearly,” which requires both getting over your own narcissism as well as seeing past false social claims, pretty compelling. We are freed from our illusions, which opens us to authentic engagement with others.

There should be less now, so perhaps more later.