David SimsEssays

Apologists for Capitalism Say Your Life Is What it Is “Because of the Choices You Made”

by David Sims

APOLOGISTS FOR capitalism are right that initial conditions don’t determine the greatness of a person’s life. The human experience is chaotic, which means that little changes can lead to large differences. An example: Suppose that you only met your wonderful wife because she didn’t leave a room she was in a minute sooner. Had she done so, you’d never have met her, and your life would be greatly diminished.

Although differences in initial conditions don’t determine the greatness of a person’s life, they are a source of variability that can feed chaos. But they aren’t the only source of that seed of change. Life is chaotic, and even fifteen minutes of haste or of delay can save your life, can kill you, can result in your having (or escaping from) a crippling injury, can result in your getting or losing a great job opportunity, and so on.

When you hear people speaking as if it all “comes down to your choices,” be polite when you tell him he’s full of poop. Such people are blind to selection bias. They’re the people who surfed the chaos of life and, mostly by happenstance, did it fairly well.

Whereas it is certainly true that such a person might, at some point in his past life, have done some deed that would have almost certainly wrecked himself, and intelligently chose to do none of those things — and whereas he might have refused to take some of the actions necessary to avoid catastrophe, but wisely decided to do all of those things — still he doesn’t see the equally fearsome hazards that he escaped purely by chance. Thus he has the opinion that, if he did okay, then anyone can do okay. Which isn’t true.

You only hear from the winners.

All of the voices speaking positively about the efficacy of right choice-making, who suggest it invariably leads onward to success, are the people who, in addition to being sufficiently wise and intelligent, were lucky also. Selection bias creates the illusion that the apologists for capitalism depend upon.

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13 June, 2020 2:49 pm

That one’s life is the ‘sum of one’s choices’ is an empty, unproveable ontological claim masquerading as a profound political insight. One of the things that is true of a ruling power is that it can spout nonsense without fear of being called to task. Such is the case with ‘life is the sum of one’s choices’. What’s true is that we cannot even prove that we have choices to make. If this seems confusing, here’s why this bit of skepticism holds up to scrutiny: No one can go back and re-run the same set of events to see if another choice is made. There is no experiment that human beings can perform that would prove that ‘choice’ is possible. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t, only that we have… Read more »