Sunday, February 1, 2009

Problems with Choice

In general it is always better to have the opportunity of making a choice than not. However, being required to make a choice is often unpleasant. Making meaningless or irrelevant choices is a boring nuisance, and making choices without the necessary information to ensure one is making the "correct" choice can be frustrating or worse, particularly if the consequences for making the "wrong" choice could be severe.

This being the case, it's no surprise that in many situations people may prefer to rely heavily on the advice of some trusted authority, or even have the decision-making capabilty taken out od their hands entirely. But this solution, if undertaken voluntarily, may only push the problem back a level. One must still decide which authority to trust among many contenders, none of whom have perfect confidence, and all of whom may have motivations other than giving the recipient the best advice possible. Thus, the problem of deciding whom to trust may be scarcely easier than making the original decision oneself.

It is only by having the option to choose itself removed that the entire burden of an unpleasant choice is lifted, and so it should not come as a surprise that many people prefer to have the government mandate decisions for them, or at least do not object when the government does this. And often, it appears to be doing a reasonably good job. But the value of lost opportunities due to government mandates is usually invisible.

I remember a discussion on Usenet many years ago in which the libertarians were arguing that it was absurd that licenses were required to cut hair, and the antis dismissed the libertarian position as arguing for a "right to a bad haircut". Of course, governemnt certification is virtually worthless as a guarantee of quality, whereas the fact that a person has managed to stay in business for any length of time in an occumaption that relies heavily on repeat customers is actually a pretty strong assurance of competence, but this misses the primary practical effects of mandatory licensing policies. I don't want to pay the effective "haircut tax", but to me it's chump change anyway. But to lower income people, an extra expense of a couple bucks for a haircut or the loss of an opportunity to make a small amount of money cutting hair is nontrivial. In the greater scheme of things the losses to the world due to these kinds of restrictions are small taken one at at time, of course, but they add up.

It would be advantageous if there were such a thing as a knowledgeable and fully trustworthy party one could go always to for advice, but there are good reasons why this cannot be. Even an agent wholly dependent on his good reputation for acquiring an retaining customers can often get away with misleading them in subtle or even gross ways, and despite this may deceive others into thinking that it is the exemplar of honesty and wisdom and that those who dispute its pronouncements are quacks. But an entity with the power to compel will not only have at least equal opportunities for this type of corruption, it will tend to lose even the concept that it is some supposed to be an agent working on behalf of another, and will naturally progress from having the de facto power to make arbitrary decisions to feeling it has the right to make arbitrary decisions.

I have never understood the thought process which leads people to believe that something should be better because it came about as a result of a political process, democratic or otherwise, rather than a market process. I don't know of any theory that purports to explain why it should be true, I only know of theory that predicts the reverse, and indeed observation seems to bear this out. But the demonstration of this has not yet been made sufficiently clear.

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