CHAPTER FIVE •
possibilities from which to choose. But here too social circumstances, including markets, affect preferences, not only the other way around. From the standpoint of citizenship, and freedom as well, problems can emerge when people are choosing alternatives that sharply limit their own horizons.
Preferences are a product not only of the number of options but also of what markets accentuate, of social influences, and of past choices, and those choices can impose constraints of their own. Suppose, for example, that one person's choices have been limited to sports, and lead him to learn little about political issues; that another person focuses only on national issues because she has no interest in what happens outside American borders; and that still another restricts himself to material that reaffirms his own political convictions. In different ways, each of these persons' choices constrains both citizenship and freedom, simply because it dramatically narrows their field of interests and concerns. This is not a claim that people should be required to see things that do not interest them; it is a more mundane point about how any existing market and our own choices can limit or expand our freedom.
Indeed people are often aware of this fact and make choices so as to promote wider understanding and better formation of their own preferences. Sometimes we select radio and television programs, and Internet sites, from which we will learn something, even if the programs and the sites we choose are more challenging and less fun than the alternatives. And we may even lament the very choices that we make, on the ground that what we have done, as consumers, does not serve our long-term interests. Whether or not people actually lament their choices, they sometimes have good reason to do so, and they know this without admitting it.
These points underlie some of the most important functions of public forums and of general-interest intermediaries.
Both of these produce unanticipated exposures that help promote the free formation of preferences, even in a world of numerous options. In this sense, they are continuous with the educational system. Indeed they provide a kind of continuing education for adults, something that a free society cannot do without. It does not matter whether the government is directly responsible for the institutions that perform this role. What matters is that they exist.
Democratic Institutions and Consumer Sovereignty
None of these points means that some abstraction called "government" should feel free to move preferences and beliefs in what it considers to be desirable directions. The central question is whether citizens in a democratic system, aware of the points made thus far, might want to make choices that diverge from those that they make in their capacity as private consumers. Sometimes this does appear to be their desire. What I am suggesting is that when this is the case, there is, in general, no legitimate objection if government responds. The public'S effort to counteract the adverse effects of consumer choices should not be disparaged as a form of government meddling or unacceptable paternalism, at least if the government is democratic, and reacting to the reflective judgments of the citizenry.
What we think and what we want often depends on the social role in which we find ourselves, and the role of citizen is very different from the role of consumer. Citizens do not think and act as consumers. Indeed, most citizens have no difficulty in distinguishing between the two roles. Frequently a nation's political choices could not be understood if viewed only as a process of implementing people's desires in their