The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 15, No. 2 (Summer 2013)
Freedom to Make the Right Choice
Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 15.2 (Summer 2013). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.
n much of our social life, individual freedom has become virtually synonymous with choice. The free individual is one who makes choices in a world of options. Under this regime of freedom, public health and welfare promotion confronts a paradox. On the one hand, “we cannot dictate how people live their lives,” to quote a New York City official commenting on the city’s “new and dynamic” public information campaign to address the problem of teen pregnancy. On the other hand, according to the same official, “we must encourage responsibility and send the right message.” So people must have choices, but not all the choices that people make are the “responsible” ones. The conundrum for public authorities is how to persuade people to exercise their freedom by making the choices the public authorities want them to make.
This sort of pedagogy requires considerable subterfuge, as illustrated by the City’s new teen pregnancy prevention campaign. Launched in March 2013 by the mayor and other NYC agencies, the campaign has several media components. The most visible is a series of ads displayed in bus shelters and subways throughout the city. The ads feature babies, roughly a year old, confronting the viewer with “sobering facts” and “tough messages” about the “real costs” of unmarried teens having children.
While the “real costs” worrying the City would seem to be the impact of teen pregnancy on the public purse, that impact is unmentioned. Rather, the costs identified in the ads are those said to be paid by the parents or the child. In one of the ads, for instance, a baby in a shirt with “Mommy’s” written on the front, says in a childish script, “Dad, you’ll be paying to support me for the next 20 years.” In another ad, the baby asks, “Got a good job? I cost thousands of dollars each year.” Across the child in both ads runs the line, “Think being a teen parent won’t cost you?”
Think again, according to the ads. The mayor’s press release describes the great majority of teen pregnancies as “unintended” and as a “decision”–a choice of free individuals who simply do not know and prioritize their own best interests. These teens must be told, and in the name of their own empowerment. This means the “choice” must appear to come from themselves and not from any authority. A baby, the teen’s baby, not the mayor, conveys the “hard-hitting facts.” The teen’s baby, not the mayor, stresses that teen pregnancy is irrational and foolish. The baby, not the mayor, invites teens to join in criticizing the “choice” of teen pregnancy as a deeply irresponsible course of action.
And so the conundrum is resolved. In the ads, what the city wants and what every teen should want and choose turn out to be the same thing. No one has ostensibly dictated how people live or constrained the range of choices teens might make (at their own risk). All the city has done is specify the “right choice,” the good and responsible choice that every rational teen can see, indeed he or she already knows, to be the truth of the matter.
See the mayor’s press release at:
- Sonja Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness (New York: Penguin, 2008) 5.
- Iris B. Mauss, Maya Tamir, Craig L. Anderson, and Nicole S. Savino, “Can Seeking Happiness Make People Unhappy? Paradoxical Effects of Valuing Happiness,” Emotion 11.4 (2011): 807–15.
- Iris B. Mauss, Nicole S. Savino, Craig L. Anderson, Max Weisbuch, Maya Tamir, and Mark L. Laudenslager, “The Pursuit of Happiness Can Be Lonely,” Emotion 12.5 (2012): 908–12.
- Roy F. Baumeister, Kathleen D. Vohs, Jennifer L. Aaker, and Emily N. Garbinsky, “Some Key Differences between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life,” Stanford Graduate School of Business Research Paper No. 2119 (October 2012): <http://ssrn.com/abstract=2168436>.