Defending the Small Stuff – Econlib

We’ve all heard the adage “don’t sweat the small stuff.” (And if by some chance you’ve never heard it before, well…now you have.) The general idea is that little things, being little, don’t really matter that much and we shouldn’t get too worried about them. This seems fairly reasonable at first glance. But another view was offered on an episode of The Simpsons, by Homer’s temporary new boss (and James Bond style supervillain) Hank Scorpio. Asked by Scorpio why he seems so glum, Homer says it’s just a lot of little things. Scorpio responds by saying “You can’t argue with the little things. It’s the little things that make up life.” Perhaps I’m revealing the hidden depths of my character here, but for now, I’m going to side with the supervillain. But first, a seemingly random tangent on Twitter theatrics. (I’m still saying Twitter and not X, just like I still say Google and not Alphabet.)

So, a while ago there was a bit of a row on Twitter about, of all things, banana availability as a metaphor for capitalism. One thread written by one of Twitter’s many socialist denizens mocked the idea that the ready availability of bananas is anything worth caring about, writing “No one, absolutely no one – not even the most dishonest globe emoji neoliberal freak – buys a banana at Trader Joe’s in Calgary in December and marvels in ecstasy at the decadent opulence of modern capitalism. They dully cross it off their list and move on, barely conscious of it.” She further asserts that nobody is made happier by having bananas and we “will not be poorer for replacing them with other foods.” 

In case my earlier statement about siding with the supervillain didn’t do enough to reveal the moral rot in the depths of my soul, let me further reveal I apparently exceed what some imagine “even the most dishonest globe emoji neoliberal freaks” are capable of, because I absolutely do have this reaction when buying bananas. I think bananas are great. They’re tasty, they have a fantastic micronutrient profile, and they’re easy to handle and eat. My two young children also really love them, which makes the task of ensuring my children get lots of fruits and vegetables in their diet just that much easier. And the fact that even in the darkest and coldest parts of the Minnesota winters, I can go to any grocery store at any time and buy seven pounds of fresh bananas for about three dollars is something that absolutely inspires a measure of awed delight in me. 

(As an aside, she is on to something when she says most people just “cross it off their list and move on, barely conscious of it.” Part of the reason I don’t have that reaction, and am instead filled with wonder and gratitude, comes from studying economics. In The Use of Knowledge in Society, F.A. Hayek described the market system as a marvel and adds that he “deliberately used the word ‘marvel’ to shock the reader out of the complacency with which we often take the working of this mechanism for granted.” This complacency, unfortunately, is still quite widespread.) 

Adding to this, consider the time that Senator Bernie Sanders dismissed the importance of consumer choice among a wide range of products, saying that you “don’t necessarily need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants or of 18 different pairs of sneakers” available to you. Just as our Twitter socialist thinks nobody’s life would be poorer for lacking bananas, the socialist Senator doesn’t see much value in having a wide variety of deodorants and sneakers. But, again, I have to out myself as an unfathomable freak and disagree with the Senator. Having a wide variety of shoes and deodorants is, in fact, a very good thing. 

Let’s start with deodorant. I agree that for many people this isn’t a matter of great importance. I use it out of basic respect for the world, but I don’t really have much of a preference here – most varieties of deodorant are, to me, perfect substitutes. However, my wife is particularly sensitive to smells. Scott Alexander once said of himself, “I can’t deal with noise. If someone’s being loud, I can’t sleep, I can’t study, I can’t concentrate, I can’t do anything except bang my head against the wall and hope they stop.” Smells have a similar effect on my wife, and if I wore a deodorant with a smell she found obnoxious, it was a pretty big deal to her. Luckily, one brand of deodorant I picked out via my usual method (randomly grabbing whatever was closest when I realized I needed to buy more) had a scent she found rather pleasant, so I’ve just stuck with that kind ever since. This benefit may seem trivial when perched on high in Sanders’ ivory tower, but to some people, it makes a really big difference. 

The same can be said of shoes. If you’re someone who finds it difficult to find shoes that fit your feet well, or if you have issues with your feet that can make walking difficult or painful, being able to find just the right kind of shoe can have a huge impact on your quality of life. I don’t know how many varieties of shoes Sanders has divined is the “right” amount – fewer than 18, apparently. If the kind of shoe that works out perfectly for you isn’t among the variety of shoes Senator Sanders thinks is important enough to be offered – well, too bad for you I guess. You’ll just have to go on experiencing pain and limited mobility.  

Even beyond the functional aspect of shoes, there’s also an aesthetic and cultural component. For example, consider this episode of EconTalk where Russ Roberts interviews Josh Lubar about, among other things, the “sneakerhead” culture. These are people who love sneakers, collect them, trade them, and have a whole community and culture built up around this shared interest. Personally, I don’t get it or understand the interest, but that’s fine – that’s just my opinion and I don’t rule the world. Nor would I want to. But my own personal indifference to sneakers doesn’t change the fact that for many people, having lots of sneakers available is a great source of joy and community, and I’m glad they have that. Unlike either the socialist Senator or the socialist Tweeter, I don’t confuse my own lack of interest in something as proof that it can’t actually be that important to anyone else. 

So that’s one upshot of this whole episode. Be aware that just because something may seem trivial to you, this doesn’t mean that it has a trivial impact on the lives of other people. Part of what is lost in the collectivist mindset is a real appreciation of just how wide a diversity of thoughts, opinions, tastes, and preferences there are in the world. It’s just not the case that having only a few different options is basically as good as a wide range of options. People aren’t interchangeable cogs or chess pieces. What looks like trivialities to you might be enormously valuable to someone else. 

The second upshot brings me back to Hank Scorpio and his contention that the little things are what make up life. Let’s just grant that the sudden disappearance of bananas would in fact be at most a minor downside for me, and thus the presence of bananas was really only a minor positive. Still, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that this “minor” benefit brought about by markets and commerce is just one of a hundred million other similar “minor” benefits – benefits that flood our lives so much they have become as invisible to us as the water in which a fish swims. And a hundred million small improvements to the quality of people’s lives adds up to a monumental improvement in the quality of life. Bananas, deodorant, shoes – these may all be “little things” in the minds of some. But life is made up of the little things, even if some treat those things as beneath them. 

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