An Ah Hah Moment While Shopping
By David Henderson
I think I understand one side of Bernie Sanders.
I returned a few minutes ago from shopping at the Lucky Supermarket in Pacific Grove, California. On the shopping list was a particular kind of cheese my wife wanted: Sargento Sharp Cheddar in slices. I had to look at a long row of similarly packaged cheeses to find the right one. It got me to realize that whether I shop for cheese, toothpaste, tortillas, olive oil, or numerous other items, I usually have to look carefully to find just the right one my wife wants or I want.
This time a little voice in my head said, “Why can’t they have a narrower choice so it’s easier to find what I want?”
That was my inner Bernie Sanders voice. If you don’t know what I’m referring to, it’s a comment by Bernie Sanders in May 2015 during his campaign for the Democratic nomination for President in which he complains about the large variety of deodorants available. Yes, he tried to make a tenuous argument that people are starving because of the large variety of deodorants, but I think he mentioned the variety because he thought it was a winning argument with people–and there are a lot of them–who decry variety.
But then, as I stood there looking at the cheese, two new thoughts came into my brain, maybe because I’m an economist or maybe because I care a lot about other people besides myself. (That’s somewhat redundant: to be a good economist you have to at least think, if not care, about a lot of people besides yourself.)
First, just thinking about myself, why do I think that if the supermarket had a narrower variety, it would have what I want? Maybe it wouldn’t and maybe the way to maximize the chance of getting what I want is to have a large variety.
Second, there’s thinking about others. Even if a narrower range of choices gave me what I wanted, there’s a very high probability that a large number of other people wouldn’t get what they wanted.
Now to my tentative conclusion: it’s tentative because I don’t know Bernie Sanders. My guess is that when he decries the variety that a relatively free market gives us, the second thought never pops into Bernie’s head.