Making deals with oneself

by Rob Horning

9 January 2008


In a few essays in Choice and Consequence, economist Thomas Schelling investigates problems of self-command, which in his view is central to the vicissitudes of a consumer society:

I propose that people concerned about consumer ignorance, about the inability of consumers to budget, the inability of shoppers, especially poor people, to spend money wisely, and about the consequences of misleading advertising—including the advertising that convinces people they feel bad or smell bad and need something that comes out of a spray can or a medicine bottle—all together add up to no more than the inadequacies of consumer self-management. In other words, if people could reliably do, or abstain from, the things that in their serious mode they resolved to do and to abstain from (or would resolve if they didn’t give it up as hopeless), it would make as much difference in the aggregate as if all those other familiar problems of consumer ignorance and budget management could be dissolved away.

This verges on the tautological: If consumers weren’t tempted by ads, they would be able to not do the irrational things that ads tempt them to do. But I think Schelling’s point is that consumers are not the rational, unitary individuals we for convenience sometimes assume they are; that instead we are made up of multiple selves with competing agendas, and the problem rests there rather than with the evil intentions of those companies seeking to exploit that fact.

And since we are made up of multiple selves—the self that wants to eat at Carl’s Jr. vs. the self that wants miso and wakame; the self that wants to read Hegel vs. the self that wants to play River Raid on an Atari emulator—Schelling laments the fact that we can’t enforce the contracts one of our selves make with another.

The law has grasped the paradox that freedom should include the freedom to enter into enforceable contracts; it seems to overlook the need that people often have, and perhaps the right that they should have, to constrain their own behavior for their own good.

The problem is that no one has an interested in enforcing our contracts with ourselves. As Schelling explains, no one else cares whether he actually gets up and does 20 push ups every morning. There’s only you, and who knows which you will be deciding whether your excuses for not keeping your word to yourself are sufficient. Contacts need to be reciprocal, Schelling notes, and we can’t have reciprocity with ourselves.

One solution is to make your pacts for self-improvement with a wrathful god, whose punishment you expect if you stray and whose church you can enlist for “social and institutional support,” Schelling points out. Perhaps religion is mainly a means of enforcing otherwise unenforceable contracts; it gives a slightly different wrinkle to Pascal’s wager—it’s to our own benefit to believe in God because then we can then use our belief as leverage against our recalcitrant selves. If we choose not to believe in God, not only do we risk God’s wrath and potentially miss out on infinite reward, but we subject ourselves to unlimited responsibility for ourselves.

Other solutions for the self-management problem involve various forms of voluntary paternalism, in which people consent in advance to have restrictions imposed upon them later by some outside force—friends, neighbors, the state. In other words, we would enlist the government to help us make irrevocable decisions. A cursory reading of 18th and 19th century novels quickly reveals how society used to work much more strongly in this regard, perhaps because there were fewer people, less social and geographical mobility, and a more widely shared moral code. People couldn’t as easily evade the reputation that they developed, and society was organized around promulgating the known reputation of others and generating consequences for ethical lapses. English novels are full of women worrying about being lady-like, men being gentlemanly; this upheld a specifically patriarchal system of gender relations, but the sexist system perhaps managed to entrench itself because it fulfilled a necessary social function of constraining behavior to a predictable range. And one thing that’s especially palpable in all the Trollope novels I’ve read recently is that his characters love restrictive mores, as a source of gossip and regimentation and, maybe most important, self-ordering. They have an easy time convincing themselves that the contracts they’ve enacted with themselves are backed by the force of society’s contempt. They seem to enjoy taking dishonor seriously, because it allows them to truly feel honorable.

Schelling also worries about how to determine which of our multiple selves is the authentic one. Which self would have the right to have the upper hand in contract negotiations? (Postmodernist theory seems to suggest either all or none of them.) When external codes of conduct limit what one can feasibly conceive of doing, certain selves become unthinkable, disqualified, inauthentic automatically. From this stems the joys of conformity.

But consumerism relies on the joys of individuality, which ironically calls for giving our multiple selves free play, and subjecting ourselves to continually reversing on ourselves or revising our desires. All the potentially negative traits that derive from a disunified self—impulsivity, indecision, behavioral incoherence, unpredictability, unreliability, inability to plan or follow through, irrationality, inefficiency—seem to be exacerbated intentionally in consumer societies, precisely because these states of mind are conducive to shopping. We express individuality through the freedom to do whatever—to be inconsistent—rather than by having a clearly defined and consistent self.

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