Democrats should embrace the freedom to not choose
Democrats came out Monday with their agenda for the 2018 election, and to everyone's surprise, it's not terrible. In fact, it's sorta half-decent!
The slogan is "A Better Deal," and the agenda includes anti-trust reforms, cheaper prescription drugs, and a plan to create 10 million jobs with infrastructure spending and tax credits. There's a lot to like here, particularly in the clever and true way Democrats cast anti-trust reforms as a way to increase Americans' freedom. But Democrats are also missing the chance to sell universal social programs this way. These programs also increase freedom — the freedom to not have to choose.
Republicans (and a significant fraction of neoliberal Democrats) often fetishize choice. They use blatantly circular reasoning to present any free-market system as evidence of free choices being freely made. But this is nonsense. Market concentration often reduces freedom.
A deep market with lots of independent sellers is one thing. But a market with just a few — or one — seller is quite another. (For cable internet at my apartment in D.C., for example, I have the "choice" of Comcast or nothing.) The Better Deal agenda presents this quite nicely, showing that monopolies and oligopolies are not just economically inefficient, but also a sharp abridgment of individual liberty. People are forced not only to pay whatever the monopolist demands, but also to accept its (generally horrible) regulations of service.
Worse, unlike a government-run monopoly like the Post Office or a power utility, people have no democratic say in the operation of a monopoly. Its corporate management gets to invoke the violent authority of the state to enforce its (invariably foot-thick) contracts — getting cops to drag a paying customer off a plane if the airline decides he doesn't get to fly, for example — while making no concession to democratic oversight. It is, in essence, statist authoritarianism.
But another aspect of valorizing market choices as the fountainhead of freedom is how it implicitly leaves out non-market options — in particular, the freedom to not choose. As anyone who has tried to corral a pack of millennials trying to figure out which bar to attend for happy hour can attest, making decisions takes work — and the more complicated the decision, the more work it requires. Americans today are constantly forced to make staggeringly complex decisions about the most important issues of life — health care, education, retirement, and more.
Even for people with good health insurance, simply accessing it properly is often a dreadful chore. You've got to make sure you've got the right program, correctly navigate the rapidly shifting coverage networks, and schedule an appointment — all done under the looming knowledge that one screwup could cost thousands as the provider seizes the opportunity to mercilessly price-gouge an out-of-network patient. Afterwards, there's a good chance you're in for a prolonged battle with the provider and the insurer about who will pay and how much.
Wouldn't it be better and simpler to just have straightforward health coverage ensured by the government and not have to make all these frustratingly complex choices?
The experience of investing for retirement is even worse (though the potential negative consequences not as bad). Which mutual fund to select? What portfolio balance? How much to contribute? Answering these questions cleverly would be extremely challenging for average people even without the associated industry of swindlers who make their money tricking people into high-fee plans.
Then there is the sheer fact of having to interact with financial companies at all. Like many in my generation, coming of age precisely when Wall Street crooks blew up the world economy instilled a strong dislike for and suspicion of the financial system. Those feelings strengthened exponentially as I did more research and discovered the role of Big Finance in skyrocketing inequality, monopolization, and asset-stripping thousands of American companies — as well as immense crimes like systematic mortgage fraud, money laundering for drug cartels and terrorists, and market rigging. The fact that retirement tax benefits are thinly disguised tax shelters for the rich, and that banksters invariably get off with, at worst, a wrist-slap fine, added fury to my dislike.
Wouldn't it be better and simpler to just make Social Security more robust and spare most Americans from dealing with these crooks?
Private monopolies that rob consumers of choice obviously limit Americans' liberty. Democrats are right to crack down on corporate America with aggressive anti-trust reform. But not all choice is good. Indeed, for the basics of life — education, health care, retirement, and so on — people don't want to waste away precious hours and days navigating needlessly complex choices, many of which are deviously engineered to screw over normal working stiffs. Most of us just want decent schools for our kids, good health care for ourselves and our families, and a retirement that won't leave us starved and forgotten. We don't want to make endless choices every step of the way.
A Medicare-for-all health-care system or expanded Social Security benefits (which have increasing support among Democrats, but are not contained in their Better Deal plan) would allow citizens to not bother. Instead of being forced to "take responsibility" for such things individually, they would simply always be there, paid out of taxes. The motivation is not to get "free" benefits from the government. I, for one, would be happy to pay a large premium in taxes to get such benefits, if only to save myself from multiple future stress-induced heart attacks.
I might be somewhat out of the ordinary in just how much I dislike being rammed into Neoliberal Decision Hell. But I think it's safe to assume the percentage of people who actually enjoy figuring out insurance networks or poring over mutual fund packets is small. People have better things to do than become amateur experts in a dozen different white-collar professions. Democrats should realize this. A Better Deal ought to mean saving Americans from ever having to deal with this maddening nonsense.