Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

The illusion of choice

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Something that struck me about the “Sorting Hat”, when I first read the “Harry Potter” books, was how it seemed to be misunderstood—a feared decision maker for and to the children, who could only hope that they would, more-or-less by chance, land with their friends, siblings, like-minded spirits, whatnot.

To me, something very different was going on, namely that the Hat was bringing the right choice out of the child, possibly after offering some options or pointing to some overlooked factors: The child made the decision; the hat merely helped.*

*My last reading is too far back for me to give details, but note e.g. the dialogue between Harry and the Hat and how everyone with a strong preference, pre-sorting, seemed to land where he originally wanted to land.

Unfortunately, it is often the opposite in real life, where we seem to be offered a choice, but the choice is mostly an illusion, and/or where those who seem to be there to help us make the choice instead presume to impose their own choice. I have, for instance, heard repeated tales of guidance counselors who have set upon students with a fix and unwavering opinion that (repeatedly) “You must go to college!” or (at least once) “You should learn a craft!”, with any resistance from the student being viewed as recalcitrance, and with no attempt to find out what the student actually wanted to do/was suitable for.* A truly grievous, utterly absurd, Orwellian, and Kafkaesque example is the German Social-Democrat’s (failed) attempt to implement forced COVID-vaccinations, the “forced” of which Karl Lauterbach tried to deny on the basis that no physical violence, “only” severe fines, were intended as coercion—either the people would “voluntarily” choose to be vaccinated here and now, or they would do so, again “voluntarily”, once they ran out of money.

*Unfortunately, I can only provide hearsay and one-sided accounts here, but guidance counselors might be the closest to the Sorting Hat that most of us encounter in real life, which makes the example very relevant.

Consider politics: Here there are many potential problems, including that there is often a limit on the choices available;* that the established parties deliberately try to suppress newcomers with other ideas;** that parties in government can use public resources (ultimately, tax-payers’ money) to push their own propaganda;*** that even parties not in government, if they are large enough, receive public money for their political propaganda; that parties can collude and barter to push policies with little voter supporter; and that the will of the voters can be made entirely redundant by unholy alliances, as when Merkel’s CDU repeatedly (!) formed coalitions with its nominal archenemy, the SPD. In the last case, the only effect of a vote was to influence whether CDU or SPD would be the senior partner.**** In light of this, how much choice does the voter really have and how much of a democracy is e.g. Germany, Sweden, and the U.S.? It is not quite as bad as “People can have the Model T in any color—so long as it’s black.” ([1]), but a “[…] black, brown, deep blue, or, on the outside, dark gray.” would come close to the truth.

*For instance, in that some opinions are common to virtually all the parties. (In Sweden even the nominally Right-wing parties, SD excepted, subscribe to various scientifically debunked gender-nonsense.) For instance, in that a vote for a certain party or candidate amounts to a vote for a package of opinions, where the voter might be happy with the party’s/candidate’s take on taxes and crime but not on immigration, but where the implied mandate will also include immigration. For instance, with party-based voting, that various party members come as a package, with little chance for the voter to speak for or against them individually. Looking at the U.K., if someone votes for party X to have Y as Prime Minister, he might also be stuck with Z as Chancellor, no matter how much he disapproves of Z. (Also note a discussion of the PM-without-a-mandate issue below.)

**Note e.g. the treatment of SD in Sweden and AfD in Germany.

***Note e.g. how public opinion on COVID was not so much determined by the actual science as by what the respective government declared to be the “truth”—even when the actual science was unsettled or contradicting this “truth”. The government line was then pushed using tax-payers’ money and government influence on media, while those who objected had to use their own, much smaller, resources. (And note how most governments seemed to stick to the original line even as scientific results accumulated against this line.)

****But this ultimately backfired for CDU, as SPD grew larger in the last election and chose not to continue the coalitions, making them a one-sided gift to the Left.

Then we have the issue that the elected politicians do not necessarily have the power that the voter is given to believe. Complications include powerful bureaucracies and civil servants, higher-ranking levels of government (note the influence of the EU on its members), international treaties signed by earlier governments, and whatnot. A particularly sad case is the constant obstruction of Donald Trump’s presidency by various and sundry: he had more-or-less* the right ideas, he was elected to implement them, he was willing to implement them—and half the time he ran into a roadblock, the rest of the time mere speed bumps.

*I have yet to find a politician with whom I agree on all issues, but he was closer than most. Certainly, more so than any other POTUS since Reagan.

Yet another complication is that politicians, once elected, have little accountability towards the voters until the next election. This allows them to make great promises before the election and to break them after the election—and it allows them to make important decisions on new issues with no true voter feedback and in a manner that the voters might not have agreed with, had the issue been on the table during the election. (COVID is, again, a great example.) Or consider the recent political chaos in the U.K.: Boris Johnson had once received the mandate of the people through a general election. He brought himself into an impossible situation and was forced out, without input from the people.* Liz Truss was elected to replace him by the Tory members, without a mandate from the people as a whole. She, too, brought herself into an impossible situation and was forced out, without input from the people. Then Rishi Sunak was more-or-less appointed,** without a mandate from the people and even lacking a mandate from the party members. Now, with an eye on these developments, how much true choice did a voter in 2019 (the previous general election) have? Would a Tory voter have considered Johnson’s COVID policies an acceptable result of his vote? Would he have been on-board with both Truss and Sunak? Chances are that many feel outright defrauded and disenfranchised—and those who do not probably should.

*Note that I neither deny that some means of changing leadership between elections must be present, nor rule out that the people would have agreed, had it been asked.

**I have not looked into the details, but I am under the impression that he was the only candidate that (a) wanted to run for the job, (b) reached some low minimum bar of support among the Tory MPs to make him eligible to do so. In other words, he does not have a true mandate even from the Tory MPs, let alone the overall party members, let alone the people. As an added complication, both Sunak and Truss were elected to lead the party and became leaders of the U.K. almost ex officio.

The election of Liz Truss shows another common problem, namely an artificial limitation on options, which forces the nominal decision maker(s) to pick among choices that someone else has cherry picked: The conceivable candidates had been narrowed down to two (Truss and Rishi Sunak), the members had to pick between exactly these two, and there is a chance that neither was truly the preferred candidate among the members. An older text deals with a similar problem of pre-filtered candidates for the U.S. 20-dollar bill, where the only candidates made available were those whose portrait would send a Leftist, usually Feminist, message. A more significant example is the 1980 Swedish nuclear power referendum, where the voters were, for all practical purposes, given the choice between “abolish nuclear power fast” and “abolish nuclear power slowly”. An option of “keep nuclear power” was conspicuously absent.* Also note the traditional sales technique of posing a choice between almost-equivalent options, e.g. whether to buy a certain car with or without a certain upgrade, as opposed to buying or not buying the car. (The latter, and much more important, decision being treated as foregone by the salesman, in the hope that the customer will fail to object and, thereby, lock himself in.)

*However, 42 years later there still is nuclear power in Sweden, if not as much as there would be in a saner world. This points to another problem, namely that someone creates the impression of influence by asking for advice but negates that influence by ignoring the advice. (Referenda are merely advisory in Sweden. Whether the advice was deliberately ignored, whether it fell victim to changing circumstances, and whether the misleading nature of such a limited-in-choice referendum was realized, I leave unstated. The general issue holds regardless.)

To stay with the topic of sales, consider the German Kundenberater:* He is a salesman,** nothing more and nothing less, and he typically has no true interest in helping the customer to make the best possible choice*** for the customer. No, he wants to lead the customer to the purchase which is the best for the Kundenberater, himself, e.g. through a larger provision (if working for provisions) or more impressive numbers that make him correspondingly more popular with his employer (if on a fix salary). A choice made through the strong influence of a Kundenberater is not typically a true, free, and informed choice already for this reason. However, to make matters worse, these Kundenberater are hired less for their product and market knowledge and more for their pleasant manners, their ability to be (at least somewhat convincingly) fake-friendly, their grooming and the style/quality of their clothing, and what else might apply. In a twist, I suspect that the quality of the actual advise correlates negatively with that of the clothing, e.g. in that the coverall-wearer from the hardware store is more knowledgable and/or more interested in giving good advice than the suit-wearer from the car dealership.

*By analogy with Berater in roles like guidance counselor, cf. above, the translation “customer counselor” begs to be used. Without this influence, I might have gone with e.g. “customer adviser”.

**And most or all of this applies to e.g. U.S. salesmen too. The German word, however, demonstrates the difference between claim and reality so much better.

***Which might be buying a cheap low-end product, buying from the competition, or not buying at all.

Go to college in the current U.S. and chances are that you will be stuck with various un-, pseudo-, or anti-scientific Leftist propaganda which rightfully would have no place in higher education. This regardless of what choices you make with regard to college or, once you are there, courses and lecturers: even the STEM fields are slowing becoming infested, the softer sciences are long gone, and some type of Leftist-cause course is increasingly a graduation requirement. Nominally, you have intellectual freedom, but in reality?

The ever-recurring area of COVID would be great source of examples, except that the illusion of choice is usually absent.* Still, examples exist. Consider the mandatory vaccinations in the U.S. military. Firstly, there is a great chance that the “mandatory” is actually illegal or unconstitutional, which implies that someone who enlisted in, say, 2019 might have made his choice in the justified belief that no-one would force him to take a vaccine (or, at least, a vaccine with so poor a risk–benefit ratio and so many uncertainties) in 2021. If so, his choice in 2019 has been ruined, as he was tricked-after-the-fact (see below for this ad-hoc term) into it. Looking at today, considering the state of science and the intrusiveness on personal choice of the vaccine, he should have the option to at least leave the service with an honorable discharge and no ill consequences—but instead he is faced with the risk of either negative consequences while he serves out his contract or simply being booted from service.** There is a religious exemption program, which nominally would give those with religious objections a choice—but applications for religious exemptions seem to be denied in a blanket or near-blanket manner, removing this apparent choice. (And also the choice to voice louder objections against the vaccination at an early stage, as he might have “chosen” not to do so in the belief that it would not be necessary. Ditto the option to ask for greater scrutiny of the exemption program from day one, which he “chose” not to exercise.)

*The topic of this text is not “we have no real choice” but “we seem to have a choice but actually do not”. With COVID (and a great many other things, e.g. taxes), governments have often made clear that “no, you do not have a choice—you do what we tell you to or else”. This, too, can be a very bad thing, but it is simply not today’s topic.

**Note that how one leaves service can affect e.g. post-service benefits and later employability.

As to trickery: Many apparent choices are not true choices, because we are actually tricked into making them. These fall into at least two categories: Firstly, cases where we are deliberately mislead about central facts and whatnots, e.g. through misrepresentations of what we will get for our money should we buy a certain product or service, important restrictions that are only mentioned after payment is made (if at all), information that should be given up front but is only given after a major investment of time has already taken place (implying that a different choice would lead to a loss of the invested time), etc. Secondly, cases where trickery-after-the-fact takes place, e.g. in that a business chooses to act in bad faith and to the disadvantage of the customer at a later date. (It might be that this was intended all along, it might also be that something changed, e.g. that one CEO with one set of values replaced another CEO with another set of values.) An absolutely horrifying case is that of Göteborgsvarvet, a Swedish half-marathon with tens of thousands of participants every year. When it was cancelled in 2020, the arrangers decided to just keep the entry fees—with a big “Fuck you!” to the poor runners, who got nothing for their money. Even knowing of a cancellation risk, a 2021 edition was planned, new entry fees were collected, the race was cancelled, and the arrangers kept the new entry fees—with an even bigger “Fuck you!” to the poor runners.*

*Here there is an element of “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me”, but this cannot excuse the inexcusable.

Excursion on sorting and self-fulfilling prophecies:
The type of sorting performed by the Hat has a risk of self-fulfilling prophecies, e.g. in that the various houses took on or exaggerated a certain character through the sorting. This is a lesson to beware in real life. For instance, the repeated claim that only an X would ever join group Y might make those who are X slightly more likely and those who are not-X considerably less likely to join Y—resulting in a Y that is thoroughly dominated by Xs, while it might not have been so without the claim. (I have often suspected that some Leftist groups deliberate use exactly this phenomenon against some of their opponents, notably those critical of highly permissive immigration policies.) For instance, many of the more sensible youngsters might deliberately avoid college, despite having a greater claim to being “college material” than many who do go, because they want to avoid a certain type of politicized and anti-intellectual environment hostile to their ideas. For instance, those who still went to college might deliberately avoid certain fields or forego an academic career for similar reasons.

Excursion on free will:
For the purposes of the above, I assume that we have free will and that there are no other complications that imply that we never truly have a choice, no matter what. Also see Eriksson’s Free-Will Wager.

Excursion on other issues:
This text is not intended to be a complete listing of all possible reasons for an illusion of choice. As I continually find myself seeing some new angle during writing, I am deliberately cutting myself a little short between the added footnote on asking-for-advice-and-then-ignoring-it and the not added* idea that advice can be deliberately misinterpreted, especially when the advice is filtered through the answers to a vague survey.

*Except to the degree that I need to explain the cut. This is one of the conundrums of communications, like how to truly not dignify a claim with an answer. (Saying that “I will not dignify that with an answer” is self-contradictory. Saying nothing, on the other hand, could be misinterpreted.)


Written by michaeleriksson

October 27, 2022 at 1:31 pm

8 Responses

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  1. […] of my many backlog items is a text that partially reverses The illusion of choice ([1]), namely a discussion of how some entities claim that they do not have a choice when they either do […]

  2. […] continue the discussion of choice (see The illusion of choice and […]

  3. […] yet another few words on choice (see [1], [2], [3] for earlier […]

  4. […] we see another case of artificial limits on choice (cf. [3] and follow-ups): Why should I, as a customer, be restricted to 4-ply, when I was reasonably content […]

  5. […] to the families of texts on choice (note [1] and follow-ups) resp. computer annoyances of various kinds, there is an interesting (and extremely […]

  6. […] [1] and various […]

  7. […] when our attempts at control are thwarted by others. (Note my text series on choice, including on the illusion of choice, unfair government and choice, and overruled […]

  8. […] ***Consider e.g. the Swedish plebiscite on nuclear power, which resulted in the decision to abolish—contrary to what was reasonable even with the knowledge of the time. While this has still not happened, more than forty years later, there has/have been a severe reduction in prior capacity, a failure to add new capacity, a failure to research new and better nuclear technologies, increased energy costs, increased pollution, and similar (relative a Sweden with a more sensible outcome). (Here and below, I gloss over complications like that the ballots arguably were rigged and that Swedish plebiscites are only advisory. Cf. e.g. parts of [3].) […]

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