Recently, I posted a defense of the value of widespread consumer choice against the dismissal of some socialists. While talking to my wife about that post, she brought up a couple of good points I thought were worth unpacking as well. 

On the issue of “you don’t need 18 different choices for shoes,” she pointed out how that might seem true to someone who thinks about things in a very narrow and self-centered sense. I mean, it’s actually true that I, specifically, don’t need 18 different types of shoes to get by. I’m a guy of simple taste, and I only have about four sets of shoes that fully cover my daily wear, gym, and formal dress needs. But let’s assume I wanted a bit more variety than I really do – let’s go so far as to say that it would take upwards of ten different varieties of shoes to fully serve my purposes. In fact, let’s be really unrealistic and just say that ten different varieties of shoes would fully meet the needs of any given person. Would Senator Sanders have a point then? 

Well, no, he wouldn’t. Let’s say this particular set of ten different types of shoes is the set that fully meets my every need, and that particular set of ten is the set that fully meets your every need. How much overlap will there be between the ten types of shoes that fully work for me, and the ten types of shoes that fully work for you? Maybe one pair? In that case, there would need to be 19 different choices available to fully meet both our needs. That just so happens to be greater than the number of choices Senator Sanders had already decided was excessive for serving the entire market – and we’re only talking about two people so far! The more people you add in, the greater variety will be needed to make something that works for everyone. There will be some overlap among individuals, of course, but that doesn’t go very far.

Advocates of the free market are often accused of being excessively individualist and self-concerned and not being sufficiently concerned with the well-being of others, but I think the opposite is true. If I was excessively self-focused, I might take the fact that ten pairs of shoes are more than enough for me as proof that it’s more than enough variety for anyone, because I might fail to recognize how different the needs and preferences of other people might be from my own. And if I was truly lacking in an awareness of the needs and desires of others, I might go so far as to assume that the specific ten choices that work for me are the same ten choices that would also work for everyone – and thus lament the “pointless waste” of a market system that produced not ten varieties of shoes, but ten thousand different varieties. 

As my wife put it, it’s not that I need ten thousand different options, or that you need ten thousand options. Each of us might get by just fine with only ten. But in a country with hundreds of millions of people, with such a wide array of different preferences, desires, lifestyles, and goals, a system that provides every person with the set of ten different choices they need might very well have to produce ten thousand different choices in total. And that’s exactly what the market does – and why Hayek was right to call it a marvel. 

The comedian Ricky Gervais once said “You found it offensive? I found it funny. That’s why I’m happier than you.” In the same way, while some socialists look at the incomprehensible variety of goods and services provided by markets and commerce and despair, I look at that same thing and celebrate a system that seeks to fill every need and fit every niche, in all the glorious variety that represents. And that’s why I’m happier than them.