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Politicians and Shopping Carts

Thinking of retailing during this election year prompts the following mental experiment.

Imagine buying groceries in the same way that voters make political choices — that is, you would choose among large bundles of grocery items just as, in politics, you choose among candidates who are each large bundles of positions on countless issues.

You’d walk into a grocery store, on schedule, once every week or month or whatever spacing of time is mandated by the Shopping Constitution. Upon entering the store, you’d see before you only two or three shopping carts, each pre-filled with a selection of groceries. We can suppose that each cart is covered with clear, distortion-free plexiglass, allowing you to review each cart’s contents before choosing.

Cart A might contain a leg of lamb, a baguette, a bottle of Merlot, a package of diapers, and a toothbrush.

You look at Cart A and think to yourself “I love lamb and Merlot and baguettes, but I don’t have a baby, and my toothbrush at home is just fine. Also, I really want a roll of paper towels, and Cart A doesn’t have one. Let’s see if Cart B meets my demands more precisely.”

You then examine Cart B. It has neither diapers nor a toothbrush, and it, too, has a leg of lamb. It also has a roll of paper towels. But it is missing the baguette and the Merlot – and, unlike Cart A, it also contains a 24-pack of feminine napkins, which you, unmarried guy that you are, do not need.

Cart C is another option. It has the merlot and a baguette, and is thankfully empty of diapers and feminine napkins, but it has no lamb and no paper towels. In their place is a pound of sliced ham, which you do not eat.

You must choose one of the pre-filled carts. Whichever one you choose will be chosen, in part, despite some of its contents. The cart you choose will be the best one for you given the other options – but it would not be as beneficial for you as would a cart that you personally rolled through the supermarket aisles and filled yourself, precisely as you wished, individually selecting and rejecting each item according to your preferences at the time you are in the store.

Perhaps that’s why so many Socially Aware people, so many Scolds, dislike retailing. In markets, each of us gets pretty much exactly the set of things we want (out of a vast set of possibilities). With each of us filling our own cart with exactly those items, and only those items, that each of us wants, there’s no role for busybodies who fancy themselves to be especially fit for choosing what millions of other people have access to and acquire.