Dworkin on choice

Notes for Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Main points

Gerald Dworkin (not Ronald) challenges the assumption that it is necessarily better to have more choices rather than less. That assumption seems to make sense: you don’t have to take the additional option, it’s there only if you want it. So if you don’t want it, you can’t be worse off. And if you do want it, you’ll be better off. Nonetheless, according to Dworkin, the assumption is false.

Our discussion

This is a justly celebrated article. But it’s very hard to lead a discussion on it. I haven’t figured out how to go beyond simply reviewing the examples.

Fortunately, multi-disciplinary team teaching comes to the rescue! Professor Brown went over how the sorts of cases that Dworkin discusses are either represented in economics or challenge standard economic analysis. So instead of reviewing the article, she made us think about how economists analyze these cases. That was hard work!

Two examples

We also kicked in several examples of our own that seem to illustrate Dworkin’s points.

Professor Brown noted that the availability of birth control and abortion made women responsible for the decision about whether to have a child conceived out of wedlock. The consequence was a significant drop in pressure on men to get married. As a consequence, women’s welfare declined. (At least, I think that was the moral of the story. But maybe this is an active research question: did women’s welfare decline or not?)

Patrick noted that a college’s liberal policy on drinking can create an atmosphere where there is unwanted pressure to conform. I noted that someone says this every year. (Which isn’t intended to take anything away from Patrick’s observation; it’s a good one.) My own suspicion is that the vast majority of students would be happier if drinking were more restricted than it currently is.

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, and Well-being, PPE 160, Fall 2014. It was posted November 30, 2014.
Freedom, Markets, and Well-being