Kent Greenfield’s “The Myth of Choice” is a bust

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With each New Year comes a new set of resolutions from people who want to live better. Most of all, people want to quit smoking, be better with their finances, and live healthier lives. Generally, these resolutions fail. With each failed resolution, the people who had begun the year full of hope will feel bitter and defeated. However, perhaps this year, people should take it easier on themselves and realize that their choices about whether to cave to their short-term desires or hold on to achieve a long-term goal aren’t entirely made of free will.

Written by Kent Greenfield, a Professor of Law and Law Fun Research Scholar at Boston College Law School, The Myth of Choice (Yale University Press) is a book that seeks to explore the tension between “our political and legal rhetoric [that] applauds and defies choice, autonomy, and personal responsibility,” and our “profound questions about when choice is real, and about the reality of pervasive constraints on our choices” by taking “into account the influences of biology, culture, authority, and economics,” in order to see that “the scope of our choices is much narrower than we have long assumed.” With the tone of a “cool professor,” Greenfield makes his case by examining all sorts of examples wherein personal choice is the crux of a legal case, scientific experiment, or lifestyle matter. As you can imagine, the book is replete with case studies; after all, every single thing that happens is based on the choice of someone, somewhere. Isn’t it?

From these examples—ranging from worker’s rights lawsuits to a youthful embracing of California’s lack of motorcycle helmet laws—Greenfield tries to get at some nugget of truth that maybe I’m just not seeing. He employs what feels like an attack and retreat method of arguing, which can be elegant but here feels a little timid. He moves back and forth between the idea that personal responsibility and freedom of choice is a fantastic ideal that our country is based upon, and how silly it is for people to be held so stringently accountable for choices made from a constrained set. This same question is posed over and over and over again throughout the course of the book. While it’s possible to win more flies with honey than vinegar, in the end this tactic left me asking, “What’s the point?” The book is interesting, but far from a mind-blowing tell-all about the nefarious plots of government and the “free” market.

Then I arrived to the moment in the book that I found to contain Greenfield’s most salient point: “We tend to believe factual assertions or opinions that match up with our own cultural and political beliefs, but if we’re conscious of it we can inject a dose of skepticism about views that match up with ours, and openness toward those that conflict.” Essentially, once we realize that some of our choices are manufactured, we can step away from them and reconsider. It’s almost a modern retelling of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, and I personally would have liked to see a little more philosophy about choice woven in to Greenfield’s examples of how our brains and bodies work to decide. But, I digress. It is at this point that I realized the importance of this book, to give those who would want it—even if they didn’t know that it’s something they could want it—a nudge toward a more complete understanding of personal freedom and choice. So I’m doing my part, spreading the gospel.

Overall, The Myth of Choice is interesting and will leave readers with interesting dinner conversation, even if it doesn’t feel exceptionally life changing, but as Greenfield points out, a fish can rarely sense the water it’s in. Certainly I have yet to examine the life in which I find myself living for clues about false choices. I guess I have my resolution for next year.