The Price of Free Choice

8 Apr

This wasn’t what I was planning to write, but it forced itself into my mind.

I’ve been re-watching some of the early episodes of The Simpsons (the later seasons are largely unwatchable; I knew the show was doomed after the last Sideshow Bob episode stank worse than Love and Monsters) over the last few days and one of them – Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish – reminded me why I have grown to detest Marge. But Marge isn’t the horror she grew into, in later seasons – not here. Marge is merely the idiot who doesn’t comprehend that free choice is sometimes an illusion.

The basic plot of the episode is fairly simple. Mr. Burns decides to run for Governor. Homer unwillingly supports him – “Mary Bailey isn’t going to fire me if I don’t vote for her” – while Marge is insistent that the family should support Mary Bailey. Towards the end of the episode, Mr. Burns decides he needs to show the human touch by eating dinner with a ‘normal’ family – and picks the Simpsons. Marge refuses, at first, to have anything to do with it; “I’m going to be ringing doorbells for Mary Bailey that night.” When Homer begs, she pretends to agree – and then ruins the campaign.

Which is good for Marge, isn’t it?

The first time I watched the episode, I agreed; Marge gave Mr. Burns a poke in the eye. And let’s face it, Mr. Burns is a heartless twisted blood-sucking monster who would probably make a horrible governor. Marge did the state a favour …

But tell me … what choice did Homer have?

Homer works for Burns. The Simpsons Family is utterly dependent on Homer’s paycheck. Is Homer in any position to refuse, when Burns demands that he host a ‘private’ dinner party? Does anyone really believe that Burns couldn’t or wouldn’t fire Homer if he refused to cooperate? (And do it in a way that would make it impossible for Homer to get another job.) Homer doesn’t have a choice – and he knows it (which goes to prove that Homer isn’t quite the idiot he’s supposed to be). Marge is the stupid person who’s prepared to ruin her family merely to make a political point.

The thing about choice is that it is quite often constrained – and sometimes in ways you might not expect.

Let me put forward the following scenario. There are two clothes shops in your town. One of them – Super Save – is cheap; the other – Wealthy Clothes – is expensive. A complete set of clothes for a single person can cost either £100 or £1000, depending on which one you choose.

Here’s another fact. Super Save is cheap because the clothes are made in a third world country, where the workers are paid peanuts for their work; Wealthy Clothes is expensive because their products are made in your country, where there is such a thing as minimum wage laws. In fact, their expensive clothes are actually not priced to gorge the customer. They’re charging the bare minimum to keep themselves afloat.

Imagine, for the sake of argument, that you’re on minimum wage yourself. Each month, you take home £1400. You have a family of four – yourself, your partner and two children. Which store do you shop at?

I’d bet good money you’d go for Super Save. £200 over £4000 for your whole family? It’s a no-brainer.

There are people who talk about making ‘ethical’ choices in shopping, about buying from firms that pay their employees a living wage rather than firms that exploit people in corrupt countries. And that requires that you have the freedom to make that choice without hurting yourself! Clothes from an ‘ethical’ firm might cost ten times as much as clothes from an ‘unethical’ firm. That ‘ethical’ coffee might cost twice as much as ‘non-ethical’ coffee. Recycled [whatever] may cost more than new [whatever]. Power from a wind farm may be far more expensive than power from a nuclear plant. And so on. And so on.

All of those pennies add up, one by one.

It’s easy to preach to people about how they should only use ‘ethical’ firms and purchase ‘sustainable’ goods. But I’d bet that most of the people doing the preaching aren’t actually paying for their own purchases. Because, if they were, they might understand why people make choices based on economics, rather than ethics.

20 Responses to “The Price of Free Choice”

  1. David K Matthewson April 8, 2016 at 12:15 pm #

    So true. Years ago I did some research on buying choices concerning ‘free range’ chickens over ‘battery’ ones. The buyers of ‘free range’ were almost exclusively either Left leaning or ‘wealthy’. ‘Ordinary hard working families’ bought what was cheap because they had no ‘real’ choice. [This was 20 years ago but I suspect not much has changed].

  2. Andreas April 8, 2016 at 12:52 pm #

    I agree with you on the not having a choice thing. But some things are not priced fair. For example, nuclear power plants are highly state-subsidized (at least in my country), because they don’t have to pay for example the nuclear waste disposal or nuclear power plants are not insured (because no insurance company would insure a nuclear power plant). For example in the last 60 years Germany payed about 200 billion € in tax payers money to subsidize nuclear power.
    Without that money, nuclear power wouldn’t be competivite against conventional energy sources like coal or oil.
    So people can afford power from nuclear plants only because its heavily subsidized.

    While it is true, a poor family can’t buy expensive goods, the reason why the family is poor is due to the fact, that they had to compete with unethical production companys who use slave labor (sorry, I couldn’t find a better word, english is not my mother tounge).

    Its a vicious circle. The poor only can afford products that are made by companies who outsourced the production to countries, where they use ultra cheap (slave) labor. The poor destroy their own economical base buy buying foreign products and they don’t have a choice.

    • Stephen Collins April 11, 2016 at 8:18 pm #

      About 3 billion a year in subsidies. Not bad and even lower on a per year basis, than I would have thought but you have to figure that those subsidies are artificially inflated. There are safe means to dispose of nuclear waste that aren’t being used due to irrational fears. Insurance based on real world experience should probably be on par with conventional power plants. Again, fear of the unknown. If nuclear power was allowed to be treated as any other power source without being tied up in courts by the green lobbies it would probably be cheaper or on par with conventional power and cleaner.

  3. utabintarbo April 8, 2016 at 1:29 pm #

    Making un-economical choices because of others’ ethical pronouncements is, itself, unethical.

    • Andreas April 8, 2016 at 1:45 pm #

      The economical problem is not based on ethics. The problem is, that poor people are trapped in a vicious circle. They only have the money to buy things in stores that destroyed and will destroy their jobs, so by buying stuff there, they support and accelerate their own economic downfall.

      • shrekgrinch April 9, 2016 at 12:16 am #

        That does not refute utabintarbo’s statement. In fact, you reinforced it.

  4. Mike April 8, 2016 at 1:47 pm #

    It is also not always so easy to decide which is the “ethical” choice. Should we only worry about the British workers and not what happens to those third world workers if they cannot sell to the rich west?**

    I recall – a few years ago – a campaign against child labour in a workshop in Nepal, well supported by celebrities, which succeeded in that it got all the children fired and replaced by (no doubt equally underpaid) adults. As the children’s families often depended on their meagre wages a lot of the kids were much worse off after the campaign. Becoming under-age sex worker – which was the fate of some of the girls – is not obviously better than working in a sweat shop!

    I’m very much not arguing that economics justifies the world’s poor working for peanuts to provide us with cheap goods but that the law of unintended consequences often applies if we are not very careful when we take an “ethical” stance. Also, most of the people in the chain, from the sweat shop workers and their employers trying to sell to cut throat companies to the managers of Super Save (who are competing with Really Cheap Clothing Ltd) have as limited choices as the British consumers (at least in the globalised economy we live in)..

    ** this is not a rhetorical question but reflects a real question in ethics: are our obligations to our families and neighbours the same as to the rest of humanity? My answer is “no”, my gut tells me that my family comes way ahead of someone I don’t know on the other side of the world.

    • Stuart the Viking April 8, 2016 at 5:13 pm #


      I think you have a very good point that many people tend to completely forget.

      For every action, there are consequences. Fairly recently, there was a huge cry about Cecil the Lion being shot by a hunter. So social pressure was applied and the anti-hunters, by and large, got their way. Fast forward a bit, and now the lion population is starting to be a problem. Because of this, the country now has to have the lion population reduced by 200 lions (which means killing them).

      The final outcome is that a similar number of lions are going to be shot and killed. So there was ABSOLUTELY NO positive effect to all the boo-hoo-ing about Cecil the lion. As for negative effects, people and livestock have been mauled and killed by the increased number of lions. That’s right kids, Social protest in America is, at least, indirectly responsible for those deaths, and the loss of livestock which will cause others to go hungry.

      But wait! There’s more!

      The African countries involved are also taking a (rather huge) hit economically. Instead of getting paid rather large sums of money by rich Americans who want to hunt lions, those countries are having to PAY to have the lion population reduced. Also, income for businesses (hotels, restaurants, stores, etc.) that would cater to those American hunters… GONE. The jobs for the people who worked in those businesses, GONE. The livelihood of the porters, hunting guides, and others, GONE.

      It’s all good though… Rich, fat, Americans can feel good about themselves for striking a blow against evil stupid American big game hunters. That’s worth it… right?

      • shrekgrinch April 9, 2016 at 12:19 am #

        Spot on!

        Another example is how Westerners send food ‘aid’ to nations so they can ‘feel good’ about stopping starvation.

        Yet that food aid all to often causes the collapse of the farms in the area that aid is dispensed in. Farmers can’t compete with a flood of FREE food coming in, after all.

        But hey! Whatever makes the Idiot West ‘feel good’ about the situation is what really matters…right?

  5. James Savik April 8, 2016 at 5:17 pm #

    There’s a reason why everybody makes fun of Walmart but, it’s always full of people.

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard April 8, 2016 at 5:33 pm #

      One author included a sneer against Sears in two books.

      Convinced me that the author’s family never needed to purchase stuff from Sears.

      • chrishanger April 9, 2016 at 5:21 pm #

        Depends. I could imagine a character sneering at Walmart while shopping at Walmart myself


  6. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard April 8, 2016 at 5:24 pm #

    But I’d bet that most of the people doing the preaching aren’t actually paying for their own purchases

    Or are wealthy enough that “making the ethical choice” isn’t a big problem for their pocketbook. 😦

  7. Karl Cornelius April 8, 2016 at 7:15 pm #

    Be careful of the trap of thinking a choice issue is always a black or white choice. It is seldom that our choices are 100% take it or leave it. Very few people have the ability to change things by themselves but everyone has the ability to influence change. As an example, if you go to a restaurant and have a bad experience the average person will share their “bad” experience with 10 people whilst a “great” experience is shared with only 3 people. Those are interesting statistics but not for the reason most people think. A good restaurant isn’t looking for patrons to have either a “great” or “bad” experience they want patrons to have a “satisfactory” experience. The “great” and “bad” should be outliers (the exception). When a restaurant is presented with an outlier they recognize that most outliers will not even bother to express their opinion. As a result the outlier opinion is given a handicap score. Each “great” may represent 10 other people that didn’t say anything or each “bad” may represent 14 people. If you want to influence change you need to understand this principle. You want to present yourself as an outlier to push opinion in the direction you want the choice to go. Being an outlier involves a little bit more effort but rarely a great amount of effort. If you are at a franchise restaurant take the effort to complain, or praise, the restaurant directly to the franchise webpage, or write a post letter if you really want to be heard. Very few people do this. This same principle can be applied to almost everything. To highlight this point ask Chris if he would choose either ten – 5 Star ratings on one of his books or one fan writing a nice paragraph about how they enjoyed reading the book. Why is that? Because anyone can click a star to rate a book while very few of us take the effort to write even a simple sentence. I value the written review a lot more than star ratings when I select a book to read.

    • chrishanger April 9, 2016 at 5:22 pm #

      That’s true. A review is worth more than five stars alone


  8. Ben April 8, 2016 at 11:43 pm #

    However, Wealthy Clothes is presumably producing in a developed country. Developed countries have the capabilities to produce clothes for their citizens (they wouldn’t be developed otherwise). Clearly, for one reason or another, it doesn’t do that, but instead uses child abuse labor to supply its citizens with clothes. The fact is, it is the way things are set up in that developed country that forces its citizens to become complicit in child abuse. It’s on the developed country’s citizens to move to change that (especially if it’s democratic) – you can’t expect the third world child laborers to do so. As such, while I understand that Super Save buyers had no choice, I still blame them for what they do.

  9. shrekgrinch April 9, 2016 at 12:21 am #

    Exact same logic applies regarding others ‘deciding’ what wage/benefits workers other than them ‘deserve’. Who gave them the right to interfere with another’s individual’s right to freely contract? Apparently, ‘they’ did…or rather their arrogant, emotional-based decision making processes did.

  10. Billy April 9, 2016 at 12:48 am #

    Reminds me of many years ago I was going to build pallets (For extra money) so I go to a company to make a bid on me ordering the wood and fasteners and building the pallets for the local company. (So they could put their product s on for shipping)

    So I get out my calculator and make my bid.

    My bid failed.

    Turns out they could buy the pallets already made and pay shipping for those pallets.
    (From another country)
    Much cheaper than I could even buy the wood to build the pallets. Not even counting the fasteners and my labor to build them.

  11. PhilippeO April 9, 2016 at 4:08 am #

    ” But I’d bet that most of the people doing the preaching aren’t actually paying for their own purchases. ”

    That isn’t true. quite a lot of middle class do have enough money to make minor ethical choice every day. And in Big Cities middle class at least, societal approval from shopping in the ‘right kind’ of store do have value, enough value to make economic sacrifice.

    If people ave money to buy ‘brand’ goods, they generally have enough money to make ethical choice, ‘brand’ after all, is not depend on economic value of actual goods.

    and In defense of Marge, political/ethical decision do influence outsider treatment, who did have value, to be well-known as associate of Burns, might have negative value.

    Marge associate ( teacher/neighbor/grocer/friends/ etc) might very well treat her and her children badly if Simpson is considered Burns ‘minion’. Homer decision could very well limit his children future.

    Housewives in general invest extraordinary energy and money on maintain their status with other parents, PTA is full of crazy passive-aggressive behavior on every children events.

    ” Exact same logic applies regarding others ‘deciding’ what wage/benefits workers other than them ‘deserve’. Who gave them the right to interfere with another’s individual’s right to freely contract? ”

    So how much wage should we pay soldier who never go to war ? third-grade English teacher ? fifth grade math teacher ? CEO of big utilities company ? Plumber trained by State School ? Fresh Graduate from STate U ? Patrol police in safe residential neighborhood ?

    Wage/benefit is almost never truly “free” in contract. Many things government regulation, societal pressure, prestige of the job, union strength, limitation on imported foreign worker, etc. And because so many of them involve decision of state/society (fired/poorly paid workers get food stamp, quality of various utilities, schooling/hospital burden for poor workers, etc), Any members of state society can and Should participate in them.

    And its not one-sided, employers get a lot of benefit from state interference. In Asia, workers stealing from warehouse, quitting then work for rival company, or outright corruption is extremely widespread. One of main reasons of North Europe/NA success is there are societal pressure/law/government enforcement who make employee ‘reliable’, state in NA/NE enforce workers contract, punish stealing, enforce non-disclosure/non-compete clause in court. This enforcement while rare, has much greater effect on society because its reliability. Employee Manager could be trusted with money and authority that in Asia only trusted family members can hold, Employee reliability prevent unnecessary work that Asia company must do to minimize thieving. Dominance of big company NA/NE is because of this trust.

    • chrishanger April 9, 2016 at 5:23 pm #

      Yes, but that’s a ‘possible’ outcome (the Simpsons become pariahs) versus a ‘certain’ outcome (the Simpsons become beggars.)


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