Face it: Your decision about whether to read this book rests on factors too numerous to catalog and too unconscious to understand.
Or so might argue Boston Law School professor Greenfield (The Failure of Corporate Law, 2007), who wants us to recalibrate our notions of personal choice. Though we live in hyper-partisan times, one would be hard-pressed to find a politician who doesn’t avow the importance of “personal responsibility.” But, writes the author, what if personal choice is a misconception? What if our decisions aren’t made as freely as we think? He says culture, biology, economics and authority limit our choices far more than we acknowledge. Greenfield’s occupation shapes his authorial choices, as he often looks through a legal prism. However, he tries to reach general readers by employing an accessible style and by drawing on personal experience. These forays into the first person serve to disarm the notion of an all-knowing academic. At times, though—such as when describing his mother’s career choices—the personal obscures the universal. More importantly, though Greenfield acknowledges that brain function affects choice, he focuses more on the seen (such as societal factors that convince us to eat fast food) than the unseen (such as how fast food alters brain chemistry and therefore influences all decisions—not just whether we eat another bag of fries). The author deftly debunks prevailing dogma about the infallibility of free markets, especially important during a time when, as he reports, one in seven Americans are poor. “Too often,” he writes, “the rhetoric of personal responsibility is a way for those who ought to admit to shared responsibility to point the finger at someone else.”
How we decide is no small matter, as our choices, public and private, nearly always affect lives beyond our own. Greenfield aims to make us more mindful of this fact—a worthwhile goal, if unevenly executed.