During my annual inspection tour of a local Park N Shop, I make an impulse purchase of toothpaste (three for the price of two – opportunistic, small-scale wealth preservation). But which sort? One dentifrice has a special whitening ingredient, another has a special cleaning additive instead, and a third focuses on tartar control.
For a few seconds I debate with myself about which one to get: choose one and you have to forego the benefits of the alternatives. Why, I found myself asking, don’t these idiots combine all the space-age biochemistry wonders in one tube? Or would these substances react with each other and blow up? Why, at any rate, don’t they package three different variants in one three-for-two package, so you can rotate pastes each day?
Then I come to my senses and just grab the sort that looks like the one I’m currently using. (Wrongly, as it happens. If the special ingredients work, my teeth will be more whitened than before, but they will simultaneously be less cleaned. I will monitor the situation closely.) For a brief moment there, I was succumbing to the spell of the evil out-of-control brand managers; it can happen to anyone. Thank heavens for a supermarket duopoly that allows Park N Shop to offer consumers a lousy range of goods: I could have been stuck there for 90 minutes pondering 35 different varieties produced by just one manufacturer.
If some sociologists and psychologists are right, Li Ka-shing’s monopolistic and exploitative retail practices do not simply save shoppers time. Having to decide among bewildering arrays of options in day-to-day life increases anxiety; we can thank Hutchison and Jardines (owners of the Wellcome chain) for playing their part in soothing us all. But it goes even further. By depriving us of the right to select from a plentiful range of goods, the tycoons may actually be contributing to community cohesion and, strange as it may seem, social justice. Because, if the egghead academics are correct, “the more choices we have, the less empathetic we become, and the less supportive of public policies aimed at benefitting society.”
At least that’s the case with Westerners. They like to believe that society and life are meritocratic: people who are successful have earned it. ‘Earning it’ means making the right decisions throughout life. It follows that the poor deserve to be at the bottom of the pile because they made the wrong choices. So there’s a huge amount riding on every decision you make, and even having to choose among different consumer brands adds to the pressure; pick wrongly, and end up being a loser. Little wonder that Americans suffer the most anxiety in the world.
It might not apply elsewhere. The Atlantic article doesn’t dwell on this but says that Asians’ “sense of self and self-worth are not tied up so much with notions of individual autonomy and choice.” (Until, the article points out, they migrate to the US, after which they fall into line and start getting panic attacks. Maybe Westerners who move to Asia get mellow like the locals. That said, the Big Lychee is perhaps semi-Western in this respect: few humans freak out about making the right choices in schooling, brands, career and investments than second-generation Hong Kong Chinese. And what about Singapore’s kiasu syndrome?)
The implication of all this is that Asians do not believe that life is meritocratic. A quick look at either the US or Hong Kong confirms that if this is so, they are right. Add sexual selection and genetics to the mix (privileged and educated families are increasingly marrying among themselves, which reduces social mobility and entrenches the wealth gap) and we’re heading for Morlocks and Eloi.
If cultures that think they are meritocratic and drive themselves nuts with constant decision-making are creating more social injustice, could the reverse be true? Could communities that don’t think meritocracy is real and keep calm with a choice of only three types of toothpaste be on a trend towards greater fairness and equality? A question lawmakers might care to ask new Chief Executive CY Leung on Monday, but probably won’t.
I declare this weekend open and tartar-free.