Freedoms Constrain, Structures Enable: The Onion Edition

One of my perennial complaints about the terms “structure” and “agency” is the implicit or explicit linkage between structure and constraint on the one hand, and agency and freedom on the other. Structures are the things that stand in the way of us exercising our agentic free-will, etc, etc. There are some excellent exceptions, especially those works that look at how agencies are constructed (and thus structured), and thus how structures are productive as well as constraining (e.g. Foucault’s work on power, Bourdieu’s notion of habitus, the ANT tradition and their whacky but lovable take on agency, even Jepperson’s nuanced discussion of institutions in the orange book).

Another set of exceptions, which I’ve not talked as much about here, are those works that look at how ‘freedoms’ constrain us. A paradigmatic example would be Barry Schwartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice (Schwartz also gave a fantastic TED talk about the same subject, available here). Schwartz’s basic argument is that more choices does not always lead to more satisfaction, happiness, utility or whatever you want to call it. The necessity of weighing so many more choices, and the constant sense of possibly being able to do better, detract from the enjoyment of the choice made. Daniel Gilbert makes some of the same points in his book, Stumbling on Happiness.

The Onion, as always, has a pithier take on the subject in a recent hilarious piece entitled: “What The Hell Am I Supposed To Do With All These Constitutional Rights?”
Here’s a brief excerpt:

I’ve got rights coming out my ass. Seriously, have you looked at the Constitution lately? It’s like a giant to-do list of all these annoying, super-specific rights we’re all “entitled” to. And right there at the top is the right to free speech. Great, so now I got to think of something to say? Thanks but no thanks. When I want to say something, I’ll let you know. I don’t need a right to tell me.


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