David R. Henderson  

I Don't Have To

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Condi Rice Plays "Hide the Options"

My favorite piece ever from Objectivist philosopher David Kelley is his article "I Don't Have To." In it, he takes on the idea that there are these things that we must do or that we have to do.

David links this thinking with Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism and it is a natural fit. Also, as with many things she wrote, Ayn Rand said it very well. She quoted a woman, having been told that she's got to do something, responding, "Mister, there's nothing I've got to do except die."

But the point is much more general. Whatever your philosophy of life, a fact is a fact. And the simple fact is that in the vast majority of cases in which people say "I have to," "I must," or "I've got to," they don't have to.

Here's how Charley Hooper and I put it in our book, Making Great Decisions in Business and Life:

Another way many of us think unclearly is by going through life with a list of made-up obligations. We wake up in the morning with a long list of "must do" items. After a while, our feet start dragging and we feel a heavy burden on our shoulders. But we "must" press on. Such phony obligations get in the way of clear thinking.

There is very little in the world that we actually must do. Let's face it, unless we are in jail or otherwise detained, we have complete freedom about how to spend our day. The reason we don't just pack up and go sit on the beach every day is that our actions lead to outcomes--and many of our "have to's" give us the outcomes we want. Going to work, for example, provides camaraderie and a feeling of importance, as well as the money to buy the things we need and want. The "I must" person tells himself that he must go to work. The clear-thinking person says, "If I work at this job for another year, I'll be able to buy a house. I could quit my job today, but if I want that house a lot, I'd better show up for work on Monday morning."

The "I must" attitude increases our burdens and lessens our humanity. When we have goals in mind, we should reframe the issue from "I must" to "I want." I want to go to work so that I can feed my kids, buy a car, buy a house, or change the world. If my goals don't seem to justify the effort, then maybe I should rethink my goals and my overall strategy. When we act with clarity of mind, we cease being a fake prisoner and realize our true freedom. For more on this, see David Kelley's powerful essay "I Don't Have to."

I thought of all this when I read that my Hoover colleague Condoleezza Rice, questioned on CBS about the situation in Syria, stated:
So, the United States doesn't have an option of no action.

That's clearly false. Whatever the merits of action or no action, the reality is that both are options.

So what's Condi trying to do? She's trying to get us to say, collectively, "We must." She's trying to get us not to think through the option of "no action." What's the easiest, if somewhat dishonest, way of doing that? By trying to persuade us that "no action" isn't even an option. If "no action" isn't even an option, well then, of course, "we" must act. That way she doesn't even need to make a case for acting.

HT to Matthew Feeney.

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COMMENTS (17 to date)
Ben Southwood writes:


From this I get the suspicion you might be interested in Hillel Steiner's account of Individual Liberty, in e.g. his influential 1974 paper "Individual Liberty" but also elsewhere.

He makes a very cogent argument that the only way to salvage a useful, consistent and meaningful definition of the term "freedom" or "liberty", bringing in as many coherent intuitions as possible is to define it as ability. This has profound implications but, I believe, is hard to deny.

Alex Godofsky writes:

If you want to downplay the idea of obligation in favor of desire, you might not want to use "feed my kids" as an example.

N. writes:

Yes. Pity that for so many Syrians there is nothing left for them to do except to die.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Alex Godofsky,
If you want to downplay the idea of obligation in favor of desire, you might not want to use "feed my kids" as an example.
Alex, that means you missed the point, or at least some of the point. In which case am I more likely to be willing to work hard to earn the wherewithal to feed my kids: (1) when it feels like a burden because I tell myself I must, or (2) when I tell myself that doing so will help me feed my kids?
I don't get it. Care to elaborate?

Alex Godofsky writes:

David, does your perspective on feeding your kids include the possibility of not doing so? If not, it's an obligation and you indeed "must" feed them. The whole post ends up as just a weird pep talk. If yes...

Tom West writes:

I've always thought that the "must do" was a psychological trick one uses on oneself to avoid making decisions that one later regrets.

Outside of Bryan, most of us understand playing games to maximize our long-term happiness. "Must do" is simply an attempt to increase the short-term psychological urgency so that we don't fall victim to our own discounting and suffer in the long term.

Dave Hamilton writes:

He is talking about how we perceive the action not whether someone should or shouldn't do the action. He is merely pointing out that we have a choice (whether we acknowledge that choice or not) to do or not to do something. Of course I feed my kids but I have a choice, that I don't ever exercise that choice doesn't eliminate it's existence.

Jamaal writes:

My high school econ teacher started the first day with 'There are no needs, only wants' written on the chalkboard. After a spirited discussion that there are indeed needs I think all the students were thoroughly unhappy with this idea.

It stuck with me though. Now whenever I say need I switch the word to want. This, like most of my economic thinking, makes me a real hit at the dinner table.

Alex Godofsky writes:

@Dave Hamilton

Yes, but when you point out that you "have a choice" not to feed your children, the actual (and correct) effect is to convince us that "having a choice" not to do something isn't very meaningful, and we are legitimized in saying that we indeed "must" do these things.

Brian writes:


Great post. It's a lesson we all need to...scratch that... should hear.

Yes, as mentioned by Tom West, the language of "must" is a psychological trick we play either on ourselves or on others. How many conversations in our relationships involve statements like "I need you to do this." It's right up there with "you always..." and "you never...." I guess people think it sounds too selfish to say "I want you to do this" or "It would mean a lot to me if you do that." And in the case of public figures like Ms. Rice, it's verbal sleight-of-hand.

N. writes:

@David R. Henderson

I'm sorry, David. I'm not making any kind of argument. The deaths of thousands of Syrians is not your problem and it is not an American problem. It is a Syrian problem, and it is on each Syrian to do whatever is in their conscience and whatever is in their power to survive, using whatever little agency civilians in a war zone possess.

I recognize that is true, but it seriously pricks at my conscience. Because while those of us in the free world do have the option of no action, thousands in Syria have no option, except to die.

Aaron Zierman writes:

I couldn't help thinking of Byran Caplan's post "Misanthropy by Numbers".

These are the type of arguments the media thrives on: bullet point lists of reasons and clear, concise decisions. Because how interesting is it to hear someone talk about how something could have both good and bad sides to it?

There are always choices to be made. Thinking through those choices, seeing both the good and the bad, and judging on proper scales can only help make more informed and confident decisions.

Not all these decisions will be easy, but they can at least have some rationality.

Ashok Rao writes:

Also note that when the government like US is committed to future action (forget Condy, think social security etc.) not doing something implies *doing something*.

Just like "monetary policy" isn't an action or policy per se but a set thereof.

Brad D writes:

@ N.

Horrific is the only way to properly describe what is transpiring in Syria. Your point is well noted. But there are terrible things happening to people - to even children! all over the world. Think N. Korea, Zimbawee, Congo, China, etc.

To justify intervening in Syria is to justify intervening everywhere all the time in the name of "ending these horrific things." And let's face it: the U.S.Government's track record on picking good guys over bad guys is lousy.

Tracy W writes:

There have been a few times in my life when I've explicitly faced a choice where on the one hand I felt I had a choice (unlike say the moment after jumping off a diving board, when gravity takes over), but on the other hand I felt that I could not take any other choice and yet be myself. One particularly painful time was when I had to cut short my first trip to Europe, a trip I'd longed for as long as I could remember, because one of my brothers had been in a life-threatening accident. It really really hurt, but I had no hesitancy about doing so.

That said, characters in movies and books who are stressed out by all the things they "have" to do, but never sit back and consider what they want to do, rather than arouse my sympathy arouse a desire to throttle them.

egd writes:

I'm not sure why quoting Condi Rice is the best example. She isn't a person with actual power or authority, she's a private citizen expressing her views on the issue. And I suspect she's not the only one to do so.

I worry (although not significantly more) about politicians saying that something "must be done" (health care, taxes, 'saving' General Motors, etc) and then using that as a pretext to accomplish their policy objectives.

Especially when those policy objectives would not enjoy support but for the politician's insistance that something "must be done."

Quoting Condi from the Bush presidency would be significantly more persuasive, if less relevant and newsworthy.

Floccina writes:

2 other thing people say to stop debate but are meaningless and often wrong:

They, I or we cannot afford x.
They, I or we need X.

Do you have more than one pair of pants then you do not need more.

Can people afford to pay $200/week on health care when they make $400/week? Well since some people live on $200/week, I would say yes. Some people in the USA are alive and spend only $135/week including paying for health insurance. See here:

Now that does not mean that I am unwilling to give help to families living on $400/week.

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