Maybe we should let Bernie Sanders, the socialist trying to dethrone Hillary Clinton, have his way. In fact maybe all the other presidential contenders should drop out of the race. After all, as Tolkien put it, the burned hand teaches best.
Despite his age, Sanders is the freshest breath of air in the presidential race. Not only does he believe things, he actually says what he believes. This is highly instructive.
A couple of weeks ago, Sanders took an uncompromising stand against deodorant proliferation. A growing economy doesn't matter to most people if all the benefits of growth are going to the top 1 percent, he told CNBC: "You can't just continue growth for the sake of growth. … You don't necessarily need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants or of 18 different pairs of sneakers when children are hungry in this country."
Sanders doesn't oppose deodorant per se, thank goodness. Rather, as a writer at Demos put it, Sanders would "gladly cut poverty and inequality even if it meant a reduction in superficial product innovation."
He objects to "the dizzying (and socially useless) number of products in the deodorant category. … (C)utting poverty and inequality is worth a reduction in innovation, and oh by the way, the kinds of things we call 'innovation' are often little more than new marketing gimmicks with dubious social value." And that, friends and neighbors, is why "we should distribute the national income more evenly."
This is superficially appealing. We can all think of products that strike us as stupid and useless (Uggs? Pickle-flavored potato chips? Country music?). And we can all think of better recipients for the money spent on them: Starving children. Endangered elephants. Cancer research. In what kind of universe does Kanye West deserve millions in income while homeless veterans are eating out of garbage cans?
But the superficial appeal quickly fades in the face of two competing considerations—one practical, the other principled.
For a peek at the practical argument, avail yourself of a fine little vignette from The Washington Post: "In an Online World, Cuba Remains a Stand-in-Line Society." At Havana's state-run retail hubs, reports Nick Miroff, "Customers with long shopping lists face no fewer than seven places to stand in line. One for butter. Another for cooking oil. A third for toothpaste. And so on." The caption to a dismal accompanying photograph shows people waiting "hours for their government ration of chicken."
This is what happens when central planners think they can allocate economic resources better than the unguided hand of individual free choice. Like any good scientific experiment, this one is easily replicated, and has been time and again. See, for example, Venezuela, which has now run out of toilet paper, tampons, and other basic necessities because some people there think they should make all the choices for other people. And yet for many, the repeated lesson still has not sunk in. In an unintentionally hilarious essay about Cuba not so long ago, one writer noted that "the people are hungry here. There are severe food shortages. I do not understand why a tropical island would lack fruits and vegetables . . . and my only assumption is that maybe they have to export it all."
Sanders' defenders will say he wants to redistribute wealth, not control the allocation of economic goods. But as Hungarian philosopher and economist Anthony de Jasay explained in The State, the two are inseparable. There is no point in taking money from A and giving it to B except to change the allocation of goods. The whole point is to get A to buy less champagne (or spend less money marketing new deodorants) and allow B to buy more of what she wants. Redistribution of wealth is meant to divert resources from "socially useless" goods to socially useful ones.
Which brings us to the principled objection: socially useless to whom? In a world of hungry children, Jones might think it's idiocy to spend a single cent on one more song by Kanye or Taylor Swift (and Jones would be right!). But that isn't Jones' choice to make for anybody except Jones. If Smith wants to waste his money on a pop singer's latest release, he has every right to do so, and nobody else has the right to force him to do otherwise. After all: If Smith has no right to decide how he will spend his own money, then by what means does Jones, whose money it isn't, acquire such a right?
Granted, this can lead to great inequalities. But that is not synonymous with injustice, as Robert Nozick explained in his Wilt Chamberlain hypothetical. (Wilt Chamberlain was a famous basketball star.) If everyone entering the arena freely agrees to pay Chamberlain a dollar for the pleasure of watching him play, then at the end of the season he will be much richer than anyone else. But since the spectators actually wanted to participate in the exchange, then no harm has been done.
Sanders and his friends might reply that procedural fairness doesn't matter much if the original distribution itself was unfair. If some people unjustly acquired large sums to waste on basketball games, then their free choices about how to spend it don't make Chamberlain's great wealth ethically pure.
Addressing that objection by adjusting the wealth of every person in the world to account for all previous injustices would be a prohibitively complex task. But we could address it in the U.S. by confiscating all the wealth and redistributing it evenly. The trouble there is that since we don't know the entire back story of every person's net worth, we can't be sure this is any more fair than some other distribution we might impose, and so we're back at square one.
On the bright side, once that's done Sanders and Co. presumably would have no grounds to resent any subsequent inequalities resulting from free trade by willing traders. Perhaps then you could buy your Old Spice Denali Invisible Solid Antiperspirant & Deodorant with a clear conscience—and without any more tiresome lectures.