The Illusion of Choice

The other day, a reader commented that I’d chosen to live in the semi-sovereign theocracy of Deseret, otherwise known as Utah. In the abstract, and in the fact that we did move from New Hampshire to Utah, that’s true.  In the real world, it was far from that simple… and that’s true of many major choices most people make in life.

In our case, the facts were that my wife was teaching at Plymouth State University, in a full-time but not tenure track job, when the New England economic downturn in the early 1990s hit the state university system and her job was eliminated on very short notice. She was offered an adjunct position at less than half pay and without benefits.  I had just become a full-time self-employed writer two years earlier, and while we were making ends meet, it would have been rather difficult to do so if she had to accept half-pay, and we had to make ends meet.  In her field, there are very few jobs open or offered in any one year – anywhere in the United States – and especially for women, because singing professorships remain one of the few areas where gender discrimination is permitted, and remains.  All a music department has to do is specify that it is looking for a bass, baritone, or tenor.

So… when she was offered the position of head of the voice and opera program at Southern Utah University, because writers are portable, the choice was between a great and likely downhill financial struggle in New Hampshire or moving to Utah,and  it didn’t take much time to decide to move to Utah… a move we certainly haven’t regretted, despite certain cultural aspects we knew in advance would be difficult… not to mention a long and costly struggle to sell the New Hampshire house, and one that we only could sell at a 40% [yes, that’s correct] loss.  However… was it really a choice?  Technically, you can say it was a choice, and we made it, but most people, I suspect, when faced with those sorts of choices, decide as we did, to accept the choice that makes the most sense occupationally and financially.

While we came through this difficult time eventually better off, there are others faced with so-called choices who aren’t so fortunate.  Poor full-time working single parents with children often are faced with the “choice” of making slightly more money – and losing Medicaid health care for their children, which means that more income results in a lower standard of living.  Is deciding against working more really a choice?  Or the illusion of one?

In cases similar to ours, but unlike us, what if one spouse has a solid job in the local area, and the other spouse can’t find a new job at anywhere near the same skill and pay level in that same area, while the still-employed spouse can’t find one in the new area – and moving will result in a totally lower income?  Either choice is bad… and this is happening to more and more two-paycheck families.  Yet those who come up with the statement, “But you chose,” don’t see that such a “choice” isn’t really a choice for anyone who weighs the options carefully.

What’s also overlooked is that earlier choices in life restrict later choices.  Having children early in life restricts what a couple can do for the immediate years to come, but having them late in life may mean that you won’t be retiring any time soon.  Borrowing vast sums of money to pursue a medical career likely means long years of private practice and likely a specialty field, because those are usually the only parts of the field where the income can pay off massive student loans.  I’ve known lawyers who have turned down judicial appointments for similar reasons.

This “illusion of choice” permeates everywhere.  Although it’s one thing when executive decisions are patently illegal, does a junior executive or a field engineer with a family and large student debts loudly and persistently question executive or corporate decisions that may be questionable?  How often?  How loudly?

What’s so often overlooked or quietly ignored is that so many of the so-called choices in life are anything but the result of choosing between “equal” or close-to-equal possibilities.  I’m not so sure that the only “real” choices one has are in the supermarket, where you have at least several varieties of every product all close to the same price, not to mention the generics. 

In short, in real life, all alternatives of choices have downsides, and most “choices” aren’t between equal alternatives, and, yes, people do make bad choices… all the time.  But from what I’ve seen and experienced in life, at all too many times, no choice is optimal, and suggesting that someone who selects the least damaging choice is at fault for the downsides is disingenuous at best, if not arrogantly dismissive.  It also perpetuates the “illusion of choice.”


9 thoughts on “The Illusion of Choice”

  1. Paul (@princejvstin) says:

    Choices are decision trees, and choosing one opens up two more, but also closes down an entire sheaf of same. And as you say, those choices are far more complicated than one might think, in hindsight or even at the time.

    Food for thought. Thanks.

  2. D Archerd says:

    There are always choices. But there are not always choices which have consequences one is willing to accept, such as the many examples you cited above, and these could indeed be described as an “illusion of choice”. But let’s be clear, there are always choices.

    And getting back to your earlier point about your choice to move to Utah, while it may have indeed been the best alternative for you and your family, the religious and political climate of the state were, as you note, known factors prior to your move. What it sounds like you’re really saying is that you didn’t understand at the time either how pervasive that religious and political climate would be, or perhaps how much it would bother you down the road.

    But the characterization of the state of Utah as a theocracy still seems a bit hyperbolic from my outsider’s perspective, with all due allowances to the fact that I have only experienced Utah as a visitor. Are state funds, i.e. tax dollars being used to promote a particular religion? If so, there are definitely some serious constitutional questions, but neither are there squads of morality police beating up those whose behavior they don’t like as one finds in a true Theocracy such as Iran. And neither is the LDS church massacring non-believers who enter the territory any more.

  3. That’s why I used the term “semi-sovereign theocracy,” and somewhat ironically. And yes, tax dollars have been spent to promote views expressed by the LDS Church, the latest being the lawsuit by the state against the court decision on same sex-marriage.

  4. Corwin says:

    I’m not at all surprised by what you have written and with which I totally agree since this has been a common theme in many of your books. Yes, there are always choices, but they are certainly not all equal choices. Being true to self tends to limit those options also, as your various protagonists have often discovered.

  5. Ryan Jackson says:

    Don’t recall which book it was, but you addressed this point very well with a quote that was something along the lines of “Yes sir, with more power you have more ability to make wrong choices.”

    That doesn’t even take being a position of high power. We always have an absurdly large number of choices of which most are horrible and have horrible, unthinkable consequences.

  6. Frank says:

    The notion of “tax money” promoting one religion is, to me, ludicrous to even argue about. I was brought up Jewish, although I consider myself one of the fastest growing demographic “SBNR” (spiritual but not religious).

    Since I was never a Christian, let alone a “good Christian” it seems to me that the big difference in Utah is that they support truly one religion, LDS. If you look at all of Christianity as one group…this happens all the time. I work for a local government…every Board of County Commissioners meeting starts with an invocation from a Christian of some type, and almost always ends up with “and we ask this in the name of Jesus…”

    I’m not really concerned about it on my behalf, I don’t feel as if I’m being persecuted (back in the 50’s and 60’s was a different story). My only point being that I believe the situation in Utah is egregious and exacerbated by it being only “one religion.” People seem very comfortable as long as some form of Christianity is saluted. I think that there should be a real separation, not just an historical reference.

    Anyhow, a view from outside the pack.

  7. Figures show that roughly 63% of the state’s population is LDS. It’s a problem when that 63% controls government and business at all levels.

  8. D Archerd says:

    Our political system is based on the twin pillars of majority rule and minority rights. When one of those gets out of balance with the other, political chaos results. Failing to protect the rights of minorities (of whatever stripe) results in ‘majoritarianism’ or the tendency to run roughshod over anyone who didn’t vote the way the majority did (we’re seeing this now a bit in the political climate in Turkey). At the same time, provided basic human rights are not being violated, in a functioning democracy the minority must give way to the majority in political decisions. One thing most people don’t realize is that Abraham Lincoln responded to the secession of the Confederacy with war in defense of this latter principle (and not to free the slaves), recognizing that once the precedent was set that any group who didn’t agree with the majority could simply leave, the country would quickly splinter into impotent fragments.

    So as long as the basic rights of non-LDS members continued to be honored and guaranteed in the state of Utah, there’s something to be said for allowing 63% of the population to have a say in how their state is run. And there continue to be lawsuits filed in other states around the infringement of the church-state line of separation, and some of these do make it all the way to the Supreme Court. If, as you say, tax dollars are indeed being used to promote a specific religion – or even a non-specific one such as Christianity – it’s up to concerned citizens to file suit to halt such practices.

    But it is a constant battle and requires constant vigilance because many (not all) deeply religious people feel that compelling others to think and behave as they do is doing their God’s work.

  9. I don’t have a problem with input and “say.” I do have a problem when that majority passes laws that are against basic Constitutional principles, then taxes state residents to pay for lawsuits defending those laws that the state loses, especially when the legislative counsel and Constitutional scholars have already told them that will occur.

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