The discussion on what is fair and just has to do with choice. It is unfair and unjust to place an individual in a situation where he or she has no choice. A system or structure can be denounced as unfair and unjust if it takes away people’s choices. This has to do with the hopelessness of not being able to choose one’s own path, and the utter devastation and hopelessness of dependence. Without having a choice, we are not and cannot be responsible for our actions – responsibility (even the morality of it) requires choice.

In other words, to have “no choice” implies dependence and subjection. It means victimhood to something more powerful. This is why a system is unfair or unjust if it does not offer choices but removes alternatives. Likewise, a relation between any two individuals is unfair, unjust, and becomes a “power relation” whenever one party leaves the other “no choice.” Choice therefore, at least from the perspective of inter-personal relations, has to do with power, with freedom, and with responsibility – it has to do with what it means to be human.

This is sufficient reason to be appalled by a situation where someone in desperation did something that he or she otherwise would not have. Because they had “no choice,” we tend to not denounce the action but the situation. Simply put, because they had “no choice” they were not to blame – the reason they had no choice is to blame. And whenever we can put a face on this reason, we have a perpetrator. Whenever we cannot put a face on it, but it is effectuated by human actions, we denounce the structure as unfair and unjust – and oppressive.

To say that one has “no choice” is therefore a very strong moral statement, which means one is free from responsibility of one’s actions. Also, one almost automatically receives empathy of others. Whether we recognize this explicitly or not, we all identify with the victim of unfair behavior and unfair behavior can often (consequentially) be identified after the fact by observing a situation of inequality where (at least) one party had “no choice.”

This is why the argument about power is so forceful, and equally the reason why it is used so often in political discourse. But the latter also means that it is ever expanded in use and applicability in order to fit specific political aims. The progressive movement is an example of how such an expanded use has become core to both their rhetoric and their beliefs. It has also become commonplace in how people use the term more generally. But let’s look closer at what it means, because it has important economic implications.

The literal meaning of “no choice” means there are no alternatives but one: the only thing you can do is exactly this. Obviously, this is hardly ever the case – there is almost always a choice. With any possible course of action, there is also the alternative of non-action. So it is impossible to consider a situation in which there is literally “no choice.” This, then, cannot be the meaning of the words; there must be another meaning, which makes it seem like there was very little choice. Choosing between eating or not eating (that is, starvation) is no real choice.

That is in fact what we usually mean with “no choice” – there are not real alternatives. One of the alternative courses of action (often non-action) is so unattractive that it is considered no real choice by many or all (it is therefore assumed “objectively” no choice). So a very hungry, skinny, and otherwise starving man isn’t choosing to eat when there is food available – eating is necessary for survival, so assuming this value (survival) there is no real choice. We do not choose not to survive except for under very particular circumstances.

Under very extreme circumstances, therefore, we have “no choice” simply because there are only a couple of alternatives and only one, on the face of it, is at all valuable. For the starving man, not eating is “not a choice” simply because it comes at such a large cost that choosing anything but that option is a no-brainer. In other words, choosing between eating or not is not choosing. The starving man faces such a high cost that any cost of attaining a meal seems “worth it.”

So it may be the case that this man steals, and while we do not condone stealing we can understand why he did it. We may even say that the situation demanded it or that his hand was “forced” (figuratively) since he had “no choice.”

Of course, it is not literally true. He still had a choice. Actually, he probably had many – but only one was viable. Only eating, since this man was starving, destitute, and whatnot, was a possible course of action. We all recognize this fact.

Then along comes another man, who has food. This is where things get ugly, because suddenly many interpret the situation as one of “power.” One man is starving, the other has food (and, it is assumed, is not starving, even if the food on hand is given up). Consequently the latter can demand a very high price for his food. Why? Because the starving man is willing to pay a very high price for it, simply because not getting it means (likely) death. We intuitively see this situation as unfair, unjust, and exploitative.

Why? Because we feel for the starving man and when putting ourselves in his shoes we wouldn’t want to give up “everything” for a meal. So we feel the inequality of the situation: there is food, we need food – so we should get it.

But it is not quite this simple, since all individual relations are reciprocal. My starving and your having food also means you have food – for a reason. Perhaps you and your family have labored all your lives and made sound investments for the sole purpose of having one additional day’s worth of food so that you can do something else (whatever it is – take a day off, invest in pigs food to feed a whole village). It could also be the case that the starving man is starving because he chose not to do any labor but instead enjoyed himself and wasted whatever food he had. Perhaps he even “invested” his time watching and teasing those who worked.

Note that the situation is still the same, but the context appears completely different. Or more accurately: we now have the context, and it seems to put the situation in a very different light. People react accordingly: they generally wouldn’t say that a starving lazy (and nasty, teasing) man necessarily has the right to demand food from those who labored and teased. Rather, with the added context, we now know that the man with the food was unfairly violated by the man now starving. Perhaps we wish to say that the starving man “had it coming.” But however we wish to change our assessment of the situation (if at all), it should be perfectly obvious that context matters.

Also, as we can see from adding the context (in fact, any context), there is no such thing as a virgin situation that does not depend on prior choices. Life is path dependent. So can we then say that the starving man has “no choice” when we have learned that he was shortsighted and imprudent in his previous choices, and in fact created the situation? He may have no choice at present, but this situation is by any reasonable account his own doing and therefore his own responsibility.

Note that we are not here claiming that there exists no moral dimension to the situation. It may be possible that the man with the food has a moral duty or obligation to provide the starving man with a meal (even though, judging from his prior actions, the starving man will likely be in the same situation again tomorrow). But it is necessary to conclude that the situation cannot be unfair because one man has food while the other is starving.

Of course, a situation in which the man is starving can be the result of bad luck or seemingly prudent choices that didn’t work out. There can also be many other people acting in certain ways so that this man finds himself in a dire situation without it being caused by himself or anyone else. But we cannot know this without adding context to the situation – because any situation is caused by prior actions.

The fact that a situation appears in which one has very few or possibly only one realistic alternative is caused fundamentally undermines the “no choice” logic. But even if we accept it (for the sake of argument), it is very rare. In fact, one might even say it hardly ever happens in the civilized world. The reason for this is that we have had enormous economic growth and have growth-supporting, protected institutions that make market action possible. And, as we all (should) know, any voluntary exchange in the market makes all involved parties better off. The starving man, in other words, cannot exist in a market society.

The reason the “no choice” logic works is partly because of economic ignorance. But it is partly an intentional construct by those acting to gain more power for themselves or certain [government] agencies. The latter has caused the meaning of “no choice” to become severely watered down; to “have no choice” today means hardly the same thing as in the example above. Rather, “no choice” is the situation people claim to face when they have a bad taste in their mouths and insufficient cash to buy chewing gum – so they steal it.

I’m only exaggerating a little bit. Since “no choice” is a forceful argument that intuitively works on most people, it has been used ad nauseam by those aiming to legitimize their own behavior – even when they know (and knew) it is wrong. Or whenever they figure the ends justify the means. Accepting the “no choice” rhetoric even for situations where we don’t have fully substitutable alternatives (in terms of value) is disastrous in the long term, but it has evidently worked.

“No choice” is used for what used to be normal or temporary situations that we are not fully content with. Such as when an engineer cannot find employment in her field, but takes on another job (flipping burgers, cleaning houses, repairing cars, whatever). Progressives obviously feel no shame claiming the engineer is a “victim” because there are no job openings she is fully content with. The conclusion (and aim) is that government should create those jobs or at least compensate the engineer for her lost income and repute.

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