Choose Your Choice: The Great American Obsession
We are entering the season of the Great American Choice, the quadrennial selection of our leader. True, about 40 percent of those who could vote won’t, most because they choose not to choose. Despite calls for making voting compulsory, Americans consistently support, by about two-to-one, the option to opt out. As a precociously cynical twenty-something wrote in the mid-1960s, “Going to the candidates’ debate / Laugh about it, shout about it / When you’ve got to choose / Every way you look at it you lose.”
Americans are unusually obsessed with possessing, flexing, and even dismissing choice. Our political rhetoric venerates it; choice is the trump card in any debate. The right warns that public health care would end Americans’ ability to choose their own doctors. Milton Friedman declared in 1980 that we ought to be, per the title of his book and TV show, “free to choose”—as in a child laborer’s “choice” to work in a sweatshop. Conservative groups besiege public education on behalf of choice. In a Supreme Court ruling that sent tax funds to religious schools, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the policy “simply gives parents a greater choice as to where and in what manner to educate their children.”
For its part, the left campaigns to enlarge consumer choice, sexual choice, electoral choice, and, of course, abortion choice. While seemingly effective in gathering allies and in persuading judges, relying on the battle cry of choice left the abortion movement vulnerable to the riposte that it prefers a woman’s choice to an unborn baby’s life. Elsewhere in the world, abortion advocates emphasize less the principle of choice and more the calculation that access to abortion protects the well-being of mothers and of their brought-to-term children.
The only Americans who seem not to make individual choice the prime directive are the traditionally religious, for whom God’s commands come first. Then comes choice.