Liberal logic: The difference between choices and choices

Very often, liberals present arguments that make conservatives laugh out loud – but there is a danger in just laughing and moving on.  Quite often, there are sophisticated sophistries underlying the silliest liberal memes.  If those arguments aren't answered, they can persuade the casual observer. 

Here is typical example.  Damon Linker writes in the The Week about "How the Conservatives' choice fetish doomed Paul Ryan's plan to dismantle ObamaCare."  It should come as no surprise that Linker wants to free us of our fetish by moving to single-payer health care.  He explicitly advocates something like "Medicare, an enormously popular government program," for all people of all ages.

To justify a universal health care system, Linker is not shy about directly attacking freedom. Choices are expensive and cause us psychological stress.  I will quote him extensively, because no one would believe that any paraphrase fairly captures his inability to understand that some words have multiple and subtly shaded meanings.

[I]n Tokyo many things Americans assume will be freely available in a city – places to sit down, parks, water fountains – are either off-limits to the public or available only at cost. This creates the need for numerous additional market transactions – and many more choices – than an American is accustomed to.

Does this proliferation of choice produce an improvement in quality of life? The answer is clearly no, because each choice involves a transaction cost – not just a monetary one, but a psychological one as well. In many cases, the costs are small, but they add up. Each choice (Should I pay to enter this park or look for another place to sit? Should I purchase a drink here or hope I find something cheaper before my thirst becomes intolerable?) requires that preferences be ranked, a decision made, and consequences lived with – all of which increases anxiety, and the potential for regrets if the decision proves not to have been a wise one. This is a phenomenon to which social psychologists have devoted increasing attention in recent years, showing that the proliferation of choices in our lives may well contribute to an increase in unhappiness.

That's hilarious, but let's make sure we understand why it's so funny.  The word "choice" is being used in multiple ways.  If we have many options, we often say we have many choices.  If we have many decisions we also often say we face many choices.  We casually call both options and decisions choices, but they are very different things.  The story about Tokyo presents a situation with a limited number of options, which necessarily forces hard decisions.  Linker presents the necessity of decisions, some of which might be taxing, as a proliferation of options.  In his example, the exact opposite is true. 

To eliminate any possible confusion, Linker is saying the lack of options (choices) is bad because it forces to many decisions (choices).  To be fair, but perhaps uncharitable, later in the article, he cites a study that concludes the opposite: having too many options is bad because that's confusing and makes decisions harder.  Without any sign of awareness of the contradiction, Linker argues that too few options are bad and so are too many.  In either case, people are forced to exercise their freedom and make decisions.  It is autonomous decisions that Linker opposes. 

When making decisions, most people like having multiple options.  For Linker, it is much better to limit our options by turning over decision-making to people like him.

There are many problems with giving up our power to decide for ourselves.  When it comes to mandatory government health care, there is an obvious problem.  The people who run government systems also need to make decisions, and they are unable to do so.  For example, Medicare is universally understood to be going bankrupt.  No one seriously disagrees.  With the exception of Paul Ryan and a few other hardy souls in the Republican Party, no politician is willing to even discuss the decisions (choices) that need to be made to save it.  If these decisions aren't made soon, our options (choices) become increasingly painful.  Sensible people are prudently examining their options for the possible day when Medicare is no longer viable.

I admit to laughing at people who want at implement a single-payer system without explaining how that would help Medicare survive, and how it would cover everyone else without collapsing under crushing cost burdens.  But laughing is not enough.  We have to convince them of the error of their ways.  We can start by showing them that playing with the meaning of words is not devilishly clever.  It is quite foolish.  At a certain point in our lives, we cannot decide to be more intelligent.  But we always have the option of being less foolish.