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Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has received a fair amount of publicity for his recent statement that, “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.” As I note in my new column for Defining Ideas:
I doubt very much that Bernie Sanders has any familiarity with the socialist calculation debate of the 1930s, which proved that no central planner has the information to make intelligent judgments on the question of which products should be sold and at what price. There are of course many things that government has to do to maintain competitive markets, but none of them rely on the heavy-handed forms of intervention that rolled effortlessly off Bernie Sanders’ lips.
Sanders’ initial blunder is compounded by a second. Why assume our society faces a stark choice between feeding the hungry on the one hand and indulging in unnecessary consumer choices on the other hand? His basic mistake is commonly made by other egalitarians, who believe there is a zero-sum trade-off between taking care of the needy and giving useless favors to the rich. As I argued in a recent column attacking the warriors against Income Inequality, it is always wrong to act as though there is a “choice” between two social programs that are randomly connected with each other. Just as it is possible to reject both tax subsidies to the rich and the minimum wage, so it is possible to insist on a decoupling of the question of consumer choice from that of public assistance to the poor.