You Can’t Put “Choice” in Quotes

“Now I may be a mean cuss. But I’m the same mean cuss with everybody out there on that football field. The world don’t give a damn about how sensitive these kids are, especially the young black kids. You ain’t doin’ these kids a favor by patronizing them. You crippling them; You crippling them for life.”

You might recognize that quote from Remember the Titans. It’s one of my favorite movies with some of my favorite lines. This was brought to mind the other day as I listened to Professor George Galster’s comments at a recent research conference. Professor Galster is well respected. The paper he presented showed compelling evidence that a causal relationship exists between the area in which someone lives the success of the children.

Using Denver’s quasi-random assignment of housing vouchers, he found that labor force participation and education increased, as well as income when you transplant a family from a low-income neighborhood to a mixed-income neighborhood.

He ended his comments by continuing a thread he had begun in the previous conference session in which he likened measuring effort as a predictor of success (or lack of effort for failure) in low-income communities as “victim blaming,” and went on to discuss his idea that “free will” and “choice” (he put these in quotes) do not exist (at the very least for disadvantaged groups). They are not the autonomous beings that classical economics suggests. Here is where I part ways.

It is absolutely true that part of being “disadvantaged” means that the set of choices available to you is greatly diminished. Past experience may add pressure to the decisions people make and dampen their spirits or lead to mental distress. In some instances, it may appear impossible, if not very improbable that anything will change. Some small comforts that the rich may give up in order to save money are much harder for the poor to give up. For example, in studies of developing countries, the poor will spend their extra money on televisions, entertainment, and small things like tea–just to make their lives feel more full and privileged. For that, we can’t judge harshly. Dr. Galster has great points.

I couldn’t shake this feeling, however, that by putting “choice” in quotes, he was making a mistake.

I was struck by this question: at what income point do we grant autonomy and responsibility to an individual? When do we allow people a core measure of humanity–that of the exercise of will over immediate desire or circumstances?

While it is true that circumstances may severely limit our ability to choose well and limit our options, we have a choice nonetheless. We choose how to treat others and choose our attitudes. We choose how and where to spend any and all extra money not spent that day. We can choose how to shape our preferences. History is full of people whose names are remembered for exercising that choice. If we say they only made “choices” rather than choices, it feels like we are cheapening their accomplishments by diluting them as a product of their experience instead of a product of what they have done with their talents and circumstances.

If we insist that “choice” should be put in quotes, does that not negate success as much as it negates failure? And if people reach success by means we think immoral, does that sin not lie at the feet of society rather than the individual?

In another sense, I wonder if one of the drivers of Dr. Galster’s results of changing neighborhoods is because individuals are no longer told by the privileged or by their neighbors that they are “disadvantaged.” Psychological research suggests that reminding someone that they come from a group that normally does poorly actually makes people perform poorly.

In other words, it may be that along with increased social and human capital that comes with having richer or more esteemed neighbors, one mechanism driving the effects of place are that these individuals are no longer surrounded by people who dwell on circumstances. Children may grow up and one day think, “I am not disadvantaged, and I am not a stereotype!”

And that moment may change everything.

It may be that by refusing to consider individual choice that we are actually narrowing the bounds of grit and success that are so important for someone who is disadvantaged to progress. It may contribute to the psychological pressures that make concerted efforts appear futile.

On one hand, social and economic constraints narrow the choices and grit that someone can exercise. On the other hand, dwelling on these facts and precluding effort and grit as a explanatory variables in the equation that is success for low-income people can make low-income people feel as if success is out of reach.

If that is true, we aren’t doing people any favors by putting “choice” in quotes.

I leave you with the thoughts of Viktor Frankl, survivor of Auschwitz and author of Man’s Search for Meaning:

“But what about human liberty? Is there no spiritual freedom in regard to behavior and reaction to any given surroundings? … Most important, do the prisoners’ reactions to the singular world of the concentration camp prove that man cannot escape the influences of his surroundings? Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances?

We can answer these questions from experience as well as on principle. The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action… Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress…

[E]verything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

What do you think?

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