Best of 2023: The Dilemma of Choice
This week, I’m posting some highlights from 2023.
Below is an article from September 12—the centerpiece of a four-part series—on the dilemma that I think is driving a lot of the current culture war on both the left and the right: an era in which the individual has more practical options for directing his own life than ever before—which imposes on us the job of figuring out what the hell to do.
I realized after publishing this that in my list of recent expansions of individual freedom, I forgot to include no-fault divorce. I was reminded of that shortly after I published this piece because I came across a report on plans by Republicans to eliminate no-fault divorce. Marriage is good for you—whether you like it or not.
Pair this with an earlier piece I wrote in Discourse where I discussed how “The enormous bitterness and the frequently apocalyptic tone of our culture war disguises the fact that it is a luxury of the rich.”
The article below is the kind that is difficult to pitch to editors elsewhere, so I rely on The Tracinski Letter as an outlet to explore these ideas. Please consider subscribing now at our reduced holiday rate—10% off.
Or give your support to help make this work possible.
The Dilemma of Choice
In Part 1 of this article, I noted some of the hidden racism on the right that has recently poked its head out into the light of day, and in Part 2, I noted how this reflects the phenomenon of “lost boys” who long for a template of masculinity but lack “a coherent vision of success” in life—a phenomenon that has its equivalent among angry young radicals on the left who blame their “failure to cope” on capitalism.
I ended by noting that this is a backlash against “a peculiar new kind of freedom we have achieved, a freedom from fixed and established rules and roles that dictate how our lives are supposed to play out.”
That’s the phenomenon I want to explore in this final section.
We are living at the beginning of a brave new era of choice. The scope and variety of choices available to the average person in our society is far greater than they have ever been in all of human existence—and this situation is relatively recent and sudden, so we’re having a little difficulty adjusting to it.
I am talking about “choice” here, and I may use that interchangeably with “freedom” below, so first I want to make a few necessary differentiations. “Choice” and “freedom” are words with several different shades of meaning, and the differences need to be clearly defined. Choice in the sense of volition, the act of making fundamental decisions in one’s own mind, is a faculty we always possess. But in the more everyday sense of the word, we also use “choice” to refer to the array of options available to choose from—like dining at the Billy Goat Tavern versus the brunch buffet at the Palmer House.
Similarly, freedom in the political sense means the absence of coercion. But there is also a sense in which we talk about psychological freedom (for example, “artistic freedom”), by which we mean the absence of voluntarily accepted constraints, such as artistic conventions or restrictive social mores. Below, I will talk first about freedom in the political sense, then I will move on to talk about freedom in this psychological and cultural sense. But I want to remind people of the difference between these two senses, so we don’t conflate them.
A New Birth of Freedom
Let’s break down this vast expansion of choice into its three main components: political, economic, and cultural.
Politically, America has been a free society founded on individual rights since the beginning, and in some respects, we were more free earlier in our history than we are today. Yet in several very important respects, we are more free politically now. Certainly, the dismantling of slavery and Jim Crow and other manifestations of government-backed racism have made a significant portion of our population far more free. But we can also look at cases involving freedom of speech, religious freedom, and personal freedom, particularly relating to sexuality.
Supreme Court cases officially recognizing these freedoms are of surprisingly recent vintage. Throughout the 19th Century, for example, religion was routinely taught in public schools—a fact that fueled sectarian conflict but faced little resistance on First Amendment grounds until the late 20th Century. The overturning of laws criminalizing homosexuality had to wait until the 21st Century. For only fifty years (but not for the last year) the right to abortion was recognized. We’ll see what happens to our freedom on other issues, such as contraception, but these are also relatively recently protected.
While economic freedom and, say, the right to bear arms, have suffered ups and down in their degree of political protection, there is a whole other set of important freedoms whose protection has greatly expanded in recent decades.
Then there is the economic component. The choices available to a person partly have to do with what he is allowed to do by the state, which is the political aspect. But they also flow from his degree of wealth—and perhaps more important, the degree of wealth in the society where he lives. If the range of available professions in the world around you runs the gamut from “field laborer” to “blacksmith,” you live in a society with far fewer choices available than in the modern world. Of course, there have always been pioneers who overcome the odds. But if you wanted to be, say, a poet or an astronomer 500 years ago, or even 200 years ago, it took a much greater effort and a certain degree of plain luck.
To a large degree, this was not anyone’s fault, just the result of a lower level of economic development, which among other things limited the availability of education and the time in which to pursue it, making it mostly a luxury of the rich. Being a poor person in a poor country means that you have fewer opportunities.
I have written about how America is becoming an upper-middle-class country, in which not too far from now—a decade or two, perhaps—the majority will be born into families that are comfortably well off. What will be the consequences?
Here’s an example. I recently began reading an article in Bari Weiss’s The Free Press. I have not been overly impressed with the publication, and this article was an example of why—a long, somewhat rambling personal confession type of piece that I gave up on after about 500 words when it felt like pointless navel-gazing that wasn’t leading to any great insight. But there’s one thing that stuck with me. The author was describing his relationship with his brother, who spent his first few years out of college basically bumming around Europe going on adventures, seeing the sights, and living on the cheap without taking on a real job or any career direction. Alas, the story ends unhappily when this brother dies in a mountain climbing accident. But what hit me is that this is the kind of story that comes from an upper-middle-class society—one in which it is possible for an ordinary person to spend years bumming around Europe just seeing the sights and going on adventures, in the way well-educated aristocrats like Byron and Shelley used to do. It is possible to live aimlessly, without a career and seemingly, in this case, without a job. It is possible to do so for a few years in your youth, until you find some direction, and quite often it is possible to keep doing it for your whole life. In a society suffused with wealth, the “ski bum” type can live reasonably well on the leftover crumbs (or on the legacy of previous generations).
If this sounds fanciful, consider an interesting angle about the current crisis of “masculinity.” This is the form in which the current expansion of choice is often felt. For young men, it is a sense that they don’t know what it means to be a man and to find direction for their adult lives. A major driver of this is the phenomenon of NILFs—an increasing percentage of men who are “Not In the Labor Force.”
Looking at recent falling unemployment rates, Brent Orrell observes:
The resurgence of work is largely leaving men behind. While the labor-force participation rate for prime-age women has jumped above its pre-pandemic level, going from 76.8 percent in February 2020 to 77.8 percent today—an all-time high—the male rate is about the same today that it was in February 2020 (89.1 percent then, 89.2 now). Where rates of labor-force participation for women have risen significantly over the past half century, the other side of the data reflects a decades-long retreat from work among men.
This collapse in work participation has been accompanied by a surge in men’s dependence on disability payments and other safety net programs like Supplemental Nutritional Assistance (SNAP). Unsurprisingly, non-work and welfare is also correlated with “deaths of despair,” incarceration, and single parenthood….
According to federal time-use surveys, NILFs do very little work of any kind, whether paid, unpaid, household chores, or caring for family members. Most of their waking hours are occupied with “personal care” and “socializing, relaxing, and leisure,” with much of the latter devoted to looking at screens: phones, computers, and television.
We have achieved, partially, the age-old dream of being able to live without working. But it turns out not to be all that much fun if you don’t have some driving purpose of your own to fill the time.
I can’t help noting, by the way, that this is the exact same set of pathologies we used to see among black men in the inner city: unemployment, welfare dependency, fathering children out of wedlock, crime, drug use. But now it is happening among rural white men. Back in the day, conservatives responded with lectures about the need for personal responsibility. That’s the correct answer, as far as it goes, but it turns out to be a lot easier to give that advice to other people. Now that the pathologies of the welfare state have come to the heartland, we get a lot of politicians who do what the inner-city black politicians did: pander to their constituents’ sense of grievance and shift the blame by indulging conspiracy theories. In effect, they are Al Sharpton for White People—a phrase that describes more than a few voices now in conservative media and politics.
But while the NILFs’ sense of aimlessness is partly fueled by the welfare state, this merely spreads to a lower income group a wealthy society’s general sense of the unlimited capacity to do anything—or nothing.
The statistics about increasing labor force participation for women highlights another aspect of this expansion of choices, a technological factor: the development of effective, inexpensive, and widely available birth control, which has certainly had a liberating effect on women but has also undoubtedly saved many a young man from a shotgun wedding.
That leads us to the most important factor in this expansion of choices, which is cultural. The fading of religion, the rise of the “counterculture,” and the Sexual Revolution—there is a reason these are the favorite bogeymen of the conservatives—have diluted most of the cultural assumptions and expectations that offered young people a limited set of ready-made roles.
I am just old enough to remember the last vestiges and echoes of that old world. If you were a young woman, you were expected to become a housewife or maybe to go into a fairly narrow range of “female” jobs: nurse, secretary, receptionist. In the 1960s, even so forward-looking a television show as “Star Trek”—while it eventually showed us a few women in more professional roles—limited the women in its regular cast to something close to these familiar roles: Chapel as the nurse, Yeoman Rand as the secretary, Uhura as the receptionist. I have resisted entering into the recent Barbie Culture War, but I can’t help noting that in its original form, the Barbie doll was radically “progressive” (in the legitimate sense of the word) because it encouraged girls to see themselves as adult women in a wide range of professional roles.
Similarly, if you were a young man, it was expected that you would take up a job similar to that of your parents. Billy Joel’s wistfully nostalgic song “Allentown” lamented this (supposedly) lost world in which you had the great privilege of inheriting your dad’s factory job. This is the kind of false nostalgia in which today’s right frequently indulges, too.
As for your values and your social life and what you believed—well, this was also ready-made for you because you went to church with your parents.
It is really within my lifetime, or perhaps a little beyond it—my parents were educated and more broad-minded, but the place where I grew up wasn’t exactly on the leading edge of cultural change—that all of this has come crashing down for the majority of Americans. The result is that a young person today has relatively few fixed cultural expectations or constraints on what kind of life he or she will live—from sexual preference to whether to get married to what kind of job to take or even whether to have a regular job at all, not to mention what to believe or what kind of values to live by.
We have the whole world as a realm of choice, and it’s up to us to decide what meaning we will give our lives.
Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life
This was all heralded by Ayn Rand. In 1943, it was a radically antisocial idea for a character to suggest, in the words of her hero in The Fountainhead, that “every man creates his meaning and form and goal.” By 1992, a Supreme Court Justice wrote a similar idea into a landmark abortion ruling, Planned Parenthood v. Casey. This is Justice Kennedy’s famous—or infamous, for conservatives—“sweet mystery of life” passage: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
For many of us, this is experienced as liberation. For others, you can see how it would be experienced as complete bewilderment, or as an unpleasant imposition—how freedom is met with fear.
With freedom comes responsibility, in this case, the awesome responsibility of deciding what meaning you choose to give your life. Some shrink from that responsibility and look for the apparent safety of imitation. They crave a pre-determined role, status, and position in life that they can simply step into as a matter of course. For many young men on the right, I’ve noticed that they view such roles, not merely as an expectation, but as an entitlement—and then they resent the fact that a house in the suburbs, a stay-at-home wife, and 2.5 kids and a dog don’t just fall into their laps. This is Richard Hanania’s self-diagnosis of what drew him into white nationalism, and a less intense version is widely expressed in the form of ridiculous memes like this one.
Which, come to think of it, is not much different from a favorite left-wing meme about how lower taxes on the rich “killed the middle class.”
To be clear, what the conservatives are complaining about is not that they are prevented from living like this. Another one of these memes that substitutes for thinking among some young people today shows a late 19th Century painting of women in elegant gowns and men in tuxedos waltzing in an ornate ballroom, and the caption says, “This is what they took from you.” But nobody took anything from you. If you want to learn ballroom dance, there are studios dotted across the nation. As for the ornate ballrooms where men waltz in tuxedos—you can do that, too. The city of Vienna has a “ball season” with more than 450 events. This is probably far more accessible than it was at the time those old paintings were made, when the majority of the population was desperately poor. What has changed is that this is now a choice you have to pursue, one of many, rather than a norm established from above.
The “counterculture” left has merely added to this sense of bewilderment, regarding all major life choices as completely subjective and conspicuously failing to offer any guidance. That’s what produced, in my view, our current backlash of woke moralizing, which often seems like a frantic attempt to impose a new system of rules and a new set of expected roles to fill the vacuum left by the old ones. It’s a way to give meaning and direction to one’s life, not to mention an easily attained sense of moral superiority. To discover social causes and become an annoyingly hectoring advocate of them provides the same kind of meaning through imitation as the old “Leave It to Beaver” model of the traditionalists.
In some ways, we have never had so much freedom, and in many ways, we have never made so little use of it.
The Examined Life
I am not a conservative, so I view it as immense progress that we have finally made good on the Enlightenment’s promise of unlimited human freedom—not just political freedom but intellectual and cultural freedom, the functional capacity of the individual to think for himself and choose for himself in every aspect of his life.
Two and a half thousand years ago, Socrates declared that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Now we are approaching the point at which we all have the leisure, the education, the freedom, and the necessity of examining our lives. As Socrates intended, we will no longer be able to answer the big questions of life by referring to unexamined assumptions handed down to us. [See my follow-up, “We Are All Philosophers Now.”)
I suppose it is natural that we should find ourselves unprepared for this prospect. Never before in all of human history have so many people had the luxury of pausing to think, on the cusp of adulthood: What do I really want out of life?
Ayn Rand advocated creating one’s own meaning in life—but she also warned that “to know one’s own desires, their meaning and their costs requires the highest human virtue: rationality.” And we are going to have to rediscover this kind of rationality if we want to keep up with our choices.
So it’s no surprise that we see so many people floundering hopelessly, employing their power of choice in extremely unwise ways and wracked with uncertainty about whether they’ve made the right choices and how they would even figure that out. And it’s no surprise to see a backlash in which people pine, in various forms—on both the left and the right—for the false certainty of established roles and measures of status.
Those of us who embrace this new era of choice and the extraordinary freedom it offers will have to show the way. It is up to us to show all that is possible when man is constrained only by the limits of nature, not by the limits imposed by coercion or by unthinking imitation.