The Illusion of Choice

“If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

— US President Barack Obama

“Whence does [the State] draw those resources that it is urged to dispense by way of benefits to individuals? Is it not from the individuals themselves? How, then, can these resources be increased by passing through the hands of a parasitic and voracious intermediary?”

— Frédéric Bastiat

Tell me sir, “yes” or “no,” have you stopped beating your wife?

Of the myriad rhetorical tools employed in public discourse today, there are dangerous few more insidious than the false dilemma. Little surprise then that, as the election season circus rolls into towns across the country, this Weapon of Dialectic Destruction (WDD) finds itself a favorite of slick politicians working to curry favor with an increasingly ovine voter mass.

Simply put, the false dilemma is a sly trick of exclusion whereby a speaker (always generously) offers his or her audience the apparently favorable choice between two unfortunately poor options.

“With which horn do you wish to be gored?”

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke furnished an infamous example when he told a hastily convened meeting in the conference room of then-House Speaker, the permanently-startled Nancy Pelosi:

“If we don’t do this [enact TARP legislation], we might not have an economy on Monday.”

News of the backroom political panic soon hit the streets. One could almost hear the trillions of excited neurons, misfiring in earnest around vacant braincases from sea to shining sea…

“Sure, creating a giant, taxpayer-sponsored slush fund from which Bernanke and his minions could (and would) dole out hundreds of billions of dollars to their bankster cronies is not exactly optimal…but not having an economy on Monday? Surely that’s worse, right?”

But were these the only two options? Your money or your…economy?

What about letting profligate institutions go broke? What about adhering to the market principle of Too Stupid to Succeed rather than capitulating to The State’s self-serving version: Too Big to Fail? Where might the economy be if the weak hands had been eliminated from the market, ceding what remaining value they had on the books to institutions that had exercised prudence and good judgment while future bailout recipients busily indulged in excessive risk-taking and reckless profligacy?

We’ll never know, of course…because Bernanke, Paulson, Pelosi & Co.’s false dilemma scared enough people into thinking there was “no other option.”

Known variously as the either-or fallacy, the fallacy of exhaustive hypotheses or, more colloquially, plain ol’ black and white thinking, the false dilemma is both deceptive and destructive. First, because it lures unsuspecting listeners into a misguided belief that their choices are limited to those offered by the speaker and, second, because it attacks the creative process by which new ideas come to “market” by slamming the door closed on alternative possibilities.

Take the above quote, from none other than President Barack Obama. Speaking to supporters in Roanoke, Virginia on Friday afternoon, Mr. Obama channeled the intellectually insufferable Massachusetts Senate candidate, Elizabeth Warren, in declaring that:

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.

Implied here is the false notion that, without roads built by The State…there would be no roads. Without schools constructed by The State…there would be no education. Without the “unbelievable American system”…creative individuals wouldn’t be allowed to thrive.

In other words…

  • Choose The State, or choose illiteracy.
  • Choose The State, or choose dirt tracks on which to haul your goods.
  • Choose The State, or nobody will help you…nobody will cooperate with you…and you will be alone, unable even to survive, much less thrive.

Textbook false dilemmas.

Nowhere is a free market alternative presented. And it’s little wonder why. At the precise point the free market ends, the tyranny of The State begins. Nowhere do the two overlap. (Crony capitalism, mixed market economies and the rest are NOT free markets.) Clearly, therefore, it is in The State’s best interest to see that free market activity is marginalized as far as possible in order that The State itself might occupy ever more space in people’s minds and, by extension, in the economies they are “allowed” to build.

So profoundly have certain false dilemmas bored their way into people’s “thinking” that supposedly able-minded individuals have stricken the very possibility of free market cooperation from their mental map.

Indeed, some confused people even contend that, were we to ignore the iron-fisted directives of The State, we would promptly descend into a Mad Max-style dystopia, in which a collection of unchecked territorial monopolies would roam the planet, stealing and damaging property at whim and torturing, imprisoning and killing whomever they so wished.

Strange then that these same people would “remedy” this apocalyptic nightmare by supporting The State…a collection of unchecked territorial monopolies that roam the planet, stealing and damaging property at whim and torturing, imprisoning and killing whomever they so wish.

These individuals are sorely misled…victims of the false dilemma. They are so misled, in fact, that they find themselves circling back to a position that sees them fervently supporting an entity that tirelessly labors to turn their worst fears into harsh reality. Worse still, they continue to mislead others by repeating such vapid nonsense.

Unlike The State’s obedient apologists, advocates of the free market don’t need to pretend to know the best solution to each and every problem — something F.A. Hayek called the pretence of knowledge. We simply need to cede the discovery process to free individuals acting in their own self-interest.

When confronted with a problem deserved of our best solution, voluntarists first ask, “Is there a peaceful, market-based solution here? Might, for example, freely-associating individuals work together to build schools, roads and bridges? Might free competition stand guard against coercive monopolies? Might the market process of creative destruction weed out inept and/or corrupt businesses, rather than reward them with stolen property?”

Like the election process itself, in which well-intentioned voters saddle themselves with the misguided obligation to choose the “lesser of two evils,” the false dilemma lulls individuals into thinking there is no alternative, no preferable option, no choice that does not, at least to some degree, rely on compromising their values and morals. No choice that does not involve the hired gun of The State. No choice, in other words, that does not render them party to evil.

Surely we can think a little harder than that, Fellow Reckoner, beyond the iniquities perpetrated by the political left and the right. Instead of a system based on force and coercion and violence, instead of extracting money from people for “services” by threatening to put them in cages, peaceful, cooperative individuals learn in time to welcome and celebrate a system such as here described by Hayek:

“Spontaneous order is a system which has developed not through the central direction or patronage of one or a few individuals but through the unintended consequences of the decisions of myriad individuals each pursuing their own interests through voluntary exchange, cooperation and trial and error.”

When it comes to false dilemmas, we need not slavishly impale ourselves on one of The State’s two horns, but only to open our eyes. The free market alternative invites decent people everywhere to stand up and confidently declare, “It’s time to cut the bull.”


Joel Bowman
for The Daily Reckoning

The Daily Reckoning