I’m currently reading Alan Jacobs’ Looking Before and After and came across a brief discussion last night of Augustine’s understanding of freedom. This is an old talking point of mine that I’ve brought up on here before, but the gist of it is that freedom isn’t, in Jacob’s helpful phrase, a function of arithmetic in which a high number of choices equals freedom. Rather, freedom is the ability to choose rightly, thereby being freed from choices that would actually be destructive to you. As a throwaway remark at the end of the section Jacobs added something like, “anyone who has stood in a breakfast foods aisle in an American supermarket knows that more choices doesn’t mean more freedom.”
One of the things we talk about on a regular basis with clients is that they should design simple, easy-to-use websites that don’t overwhelm users with a million different choices. We point to a famous study by a Columbia scholar who found that, I’m trying to recall the exact numbers, when shoppers were presented with 24 jams to sample, only 3% bought any jam. But when they were given six choices, a significantly higher percentage of people purchased jam. This is all part of a fairly well documented phenomenon called “choice paralysis.” The connection I’d never made before reading Dr. Jacobs, however, was how that discussion might relate to freedom more broadly.
We all can recognize that simply having tons of choices doesn’t make us free when we’re standing in a grocery store. Yet this libertarian notion of freedom that values choice above all else still seems dominant in most non-commercial settings. I’m not sure what to make of that, but it was striking to me that in at least one part of our life we can recognize that freedom might be more about being free from wrong choices than simply having an abundance of them.