An Aversion to Choice, from Florists to the American Government
There was a recent death in the family of a new colleague, and the team was at a loss for how best to show their sympathies. Everyone took their turns expressing their condolences, saying how sad they were to hear the news and that they were there if she needed to talk, or needed a shoulder to cry on. Most eventually became quite insistent that our team absolutely had to buy something to show the full extent of our sympathies, as though a gift was going to bring her family member back, or have any significant impact in relieving her grief. We finally agreed upon a bouquet of flowers that was going to be delivered to the colleague’s house (a little ironic, as flowers tend to die fairly quickly and may very well have ended up only reminding the colleague of her loss even more. There are now online services and catalogues that allow you to choose from any number of specialized bouquets, each corresponding to a particular occasion, which are then delivered right to the recipient’s door. Alas, we effortlessly chose the “Eternal Remembrance Bouquet”, for $74.99 plus shipping.
After this episode, I began to wonder what had led us all to agree so easily on flowers, and from this particular company. I asked myself, who had decided that this particular arrangement of flowers, and at that price, was the appropriate response to the death of a colleague’s loved one. I soon realized that the question was not who, but what had decided — and probing the question a little deeper I saw what could only be described as a big miscalculation by the scholars who had been studying the economy up until now. For years there has been a consensus among economists, political thinkers, and the like, that the market was dictated by the needs and the behavior of the consumers; that popular demand determines what sorts of products are available and how much they cost — implying that we have some choice, or free will in deciding what we buy. This is a given in the standard liberal economic gospel. But now it would appear that by means of continuous progress in technology we have reached a critical mass in terms of the availability of products and ease of their delivery, where it is actually the market that is dictating people’s behavior and, even more worryingly, that it seems to be dictating the standards for correct behavior. Let me explain.
Before the age of such widespread internet marketing and the increasingly lower costs of shipping, if one wanted to send flowers to express their sympathies for the passing of a loved one, or for any other reason, they would go to “the market” so to speak, which consisted of the various florists in that person’s proximity. Even though they may have readymade bouquets, and the florist may suggest certain arrangements for certain occasions, there was no obligation. You could still choose the flowers you felt best expressed your sentiments, preserving at least some of your individuality. These types of vendors are a dying breed, though. It seems that almost everywhere we go now, our options are increasingly limited and we are given a select few pre-packaged options to choose, from which we cannot deviate — even more so now in the age of online shopping. People do not like being burdened with too many options and, given the choice, much prefer others decide for them; and the marketing firms are more than willing to accept this burden. I wish this problem was limited only to online florist businesses, but unfortunately the closer we look, the more we can see it penetrating into other domains. We see this issue in its most acute form during the holidays, or other occasions where gift-giving is more or less obligatory if one wishes to maintain good social relations.
Every year there is a new lineup of trendy products that you constantly see being advertised and sported by people in the streets and on social media. While you can visit shopping centers and other stores and see that a wide variety of products are available — all of which could potentially be gift-wrapped — the pressure from the thoughts of how one will be perceived by their peers, as well as the bombardment of advertisements, will cause most people to crack and give in. A few years ago, for example, the ghastly Pandora charm bracelets had become a standard gift for girlfriends; if someone wanted to be a good boyfriend, they had to buy one and continue buying the charm accessories. Another product where we see this subtle coercion to acceptance, one that has been slightly more prevailing, is the iPhone. Just think of the contempt those who use iPhones have for those who do not, and the condescension with which they approach them.
Moving away from holiday gifts and specialty goods, this trend of behavior correction by the market is also affecting how we buy our groceries. There are now services like Blue Apron, Chef’s Plate, Hello Fresh and others who deliver a week’s worth of groceries to your door, already prepped and packaged into raw meals that you need only to heat up. They advertise this service on a platform of waste-reduction, where their meal plans come in appropriate portions, meaning that you never have to throw out food that has gone bad because you did not eat it in time. They provide different recipes with each package so that you can prepare a variety of meals throughout the week. Appearing well-intentioned enough on the surface, this is certainly the most sinister part of the enterprise. You are now limited to the recipes and portions they choose to provide you with, which are varied enough, but limited nonetheless. This is not really a problem as long as these services continue to coexist with the grocery stores. The real problem I foresee is where, due to the ease and relatively low cost, everyone eventually begins opting for the pre-packaged meal delivery instead of traditional cooking and regular grocery stores die out. We would be totally at the mercy of these services and limited to the meal options and meal portions they provide (limited to the “correct variety”), with no more space for any spontaneity or creativity. You would need to wait for whatever you would like to eat to somehow become popular enough for these companies to agree to add it to their product lines, instead of simply going out and buying the ingredients yourself.
With these established cases (the florist, the Pandora bracelet, the prepackaged meal delivery), just think for a moment what would happen if you diverted from buying the correct thing, and got something else to show your sympathies or otherwise express yourself. It is certainly possible that no one would say anything, but this does not change the thoughts that would be running through their minds under these conditions. You would be the victim of thoughts along the lines of “You don’t care enough to get the Eternal Remembrance Bouquet?!” Or similarly, imagine what would happen to the schmuck who gets his significant other a snow-globe (or something like that) instead of the Pandora Charm Bracelet: “You don’t care enough about me to get me the charm bracelet!”. To really emphasize this even further, consider the reaction of iPhone owners when they receive text messages that do not appear in blue — they treat it as though it were some sort of heresy akin to not being Catholic in 16th Century Spain. We can think of those whose text messages show up in green almost as the martyrs of this day and age. You are socially punished by the market for deviating from the correct behavior.
In all of the above cases, you are given what appears to be a choice when purchasing these types of material goods, but this choice becomes an illusion when both the supply and demand are produced by the same entity. On a political note, I delve deeper and claim that government was the first domain where the market had begun presenting these illusions of choice and dictating correct behavior, especially in North America. The historian Howard Zinn talked about the Bi-Partisan Consensus, where for about the last fifty years in America, Republicans and Democrats have more or less shared the same general position, no matter which president was in office, or which party dominated congress. So, while members of the government still identified as either Republican or Democrat, the large majority were still on the same side and the policies they pushed still served to protect the interests of the same powerful and wealthy elites. They masked this with token concessions to human rights, such as under the Carter administration, or efforts to increase racial inclusivity as under the Reagan and Bush administrations. Looking through this lens, we begin to see the parallels with the florist, the Pandora bracelet, the meal-prep services, Democrat and Republican; where even though you are given a choice between various options, in the end you are buying the same thing — what the commercial hegemony wants you to buy.
This is definitely a complex issue, but I believe that much of it can be traced back to that basic capitalist instinct of constantly trying to lower the cost of everything, or increasing “efficiency” — as in Adam Smith’s famous pin factory example. For example, with the florist, if you were to purchase each flower individually from them and arrange the bouquet yourself, it would end up costing considerably more in terms of both time and money, and would serve only to discourage you as a potential customer. But if the florist provides prearranged bouquets for common occasions, it reduces the amount of work both for the florist and the customer, and consequently lowers the price for the customer. It is the same pattern with these meal-prep services. It ends up costing a lot less for the individual consumer to have one or two suppliers buy all of the meal ingredients in bulk, and to prep, package, and deliver everything to their front door than it would for them to spend time and money to drive to the grocery store, then buy the necessary groceries, half of which they will mostly likely end up throwing out. I will even go so far as to claim that this is the same principle guiding the Bi-Partisan Consensus, where government and politics become much more efficient under conditions that, despite terms of office, allow the same elites to maintain power for long periods of time and provide stability — after all, the staple product most governments are selling their people is political stability (though this is not always understood in the developed world).
What I fear most with a trend like this, however, is that we are losing our individuality as the variety of products and vendors available to us decreases. I am worried because, as a result of all this, we are going to lose our ability to have interesting conversations with one another. If this continues to penetrate other aspects of everyday life, we will eventually find ourselves in a situation where once we have talked to one person, it will be as though we have talked to everyone. I am doubtful that trading our individuality for cheaper consumer goods is a smart bargain.
The importance of keeping our individuality is, again quite ironically, that it is what allows society as a whole to function properly. It is what, I believe, allows trust to develop between compatible pairs of people, and eventually evolve into trust within larger groups. Why? Imagine for a moment that, apart from physical appearance, everyone was exactly the same — dressed the exact same, bought all the exact same things, ate all the exact same foods, lived in the exact same types of houses, and talked about all the same things. Under such circumstances you would have quite a hard time distinguishing between all of the different people you would be interacting with all day. You would no longer be able to develop those connections with people on a deeper level, because there would no longer be any deeper level to connect with on. This type of social organization is for bees, not for humans, or any other primates for that matter. With no trust to hold social relations together, or make them meaningful, business relations would soon disintegrate and productivity would come to halt.
With all of this in mind, I would encourage anyone to continue being different in whatever way they can. If not for their own sake, then for the sake of civil society. It is certainly not an easy ask, but just ponder the alternative for a minute.