In my family’s humble but enthusiastic opinion, Saigon Noodle House is one of the Birmingham area’s culinary treasures–indeed, as I type this, we have a delivery of delicious pho and spring rolls scheduled for about an hour and a half from now. The original location on Highway 280 still does a thriving business, but the kids were especially upset a few years ago when their Avondale location closed after only a few years in business. What used to be Saigon Noodle House is now Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog Barbecue.
What’s that? We lost a Vietnamese treasure and gained…another barbecue restaurant? In Birmingham, Alabama, of all places, where pretty much any address in the city is already within walking distance or at worst a short drive of good barbecue? Of course, Rodney Scott isn’t just any chef. He’s a James Beard Award-winning master of his craft.
This was cold comfort for people (my kids) who were upset that Saigon Noodle House had been replaced. After all, didn’t we already have enough barbecue places?
They reminded me of Bernie Sanders causing a stir a few years ago by saying people don’t need 23 different kinds of deodorant or eighteen pairs of sneakers in a country where children go hungry. Sanders, of course, owns three houses and is most likely no friend of Walmart, which reduces food insecurity among those children he claims to care about so much. But I digress.
At first glance, maybe it does seem kind of silly to have so many barbecue places, especially when so many of them operate well below capacity. Wouldn’t it be much more efficient–a much better use of resources–to simply combine them all into fewer locations with higher turnover? Isn’t it wasteful to have all that space in so many restaurants when places in cities like New York and San Francisco tend to be smaller?
This is part of the superficial appeal of socialism. Instead of three big car companies, each with its own army of c-level executives, why not just have one and redeploy the resources elsewhere? Instead of two half-empty barbecue places, why not have one full one and, perhaps, use the remaining restaurant space to produce Vietnamese noodles?
The simple answer is that it would actually waste resources. The people have spoken, and they have voted with the fruit of their labor for more barbecue places and fewer noodle places. Moreover, they have voted for larger, more spacious restaurants in places where land is cheap (most of “flyover country”) and smaller, less spacious restaurants in places where land is expensive (major cities on the coasts).
Sneering at variety, saying variety is actually a bad thing because of the not-as-robust-as-you-might-think “paradox of choice,” or decrying “waste” due to variety and specialization in availability leads us to some strange places. If we don’t need this many kinds of deodorant or this many barbecue restaurants, do we really need so many different cuts of meat or types of cheese or kinds of pasta at the grocery store? Does a Chinese restaurant need to serve chicken seventeen different ways or pork twelve different ways? One place I checked out has six different noodle soups, seventeen seafood dishes, and a separate section with seven different ways they serve fish. At the very least, do they really need to serve Chinese and Korean-style seafood noodle soup?
But why stop there? Why do we need to have red and white wine? Or lager and ale, to say nothing of all the sub-varieties of porters, stouts, sours, and whatevers and sub-sub-varieties within those? Why, for that matter, do we need so many different kinds of food? Variety is the spice of life? Maybe variety is the stuff of waste.
The answer, of course, is that if the consumers vote for it with their own money, then we ‘need’ it, full stop, no matter what Bernie Sanders says.
In our book Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich: How the Bourgeois Deal Enriched the World, Deirdre McCloskey and I explain that the right test is the profit test. We all make terrible choices, and there is a good chance that sometime today you will do something I wouldn’t have done or that I don’t think wise. If we recognize one another as free and responsible adults bearing the image of God, then we should recognize that in just about every instance the right way for me to get you to stop doing things I don’t like is to persuade you–and even in the precious few instances where coercion might be theoretically warranted, I think we have to have overwhelming evidence that the benefits almost certainly outweigh the costs (see Bryan Caplan’s excellent “Common-Sense Case for Pacifism”).
“But,” you might respond, “what about corporate power? Advertising manipulates us into buying a whole lot of junk we don’t need. People are helpless before the sirens of Madison Avenue. You say we actually want all these barbecue places, but you’re just the useful idiot of Big Pig–or ‘Big Brisket’ when you’re in Texas.”
Maybe, but I’m not convinced. First, advertising is under 1.5% of GDP. If advertising were the manipulative magic money-printing machine so many people think it is, then it seems like unlimited fortunes are there for the taking just by moving a few dollars from research and development to advertising.
Second, history is littered with spectacular commercial failures from some of the world’s most powerful people and companies. At one point, you could have served aperitifs made with Trump Vodka before a dinner of Trump Steaks before relaxing over Trump: The Game with your guests. No more. McDonald’s has a track record of breathtaking success, but also a track record of breathtaking failure. McPizza? The Hula Burger? McSpaghetti? The Arch Deluxe? McDLT? McLean? Chicken fajitas? The Cheddar Melt? The Szechuan sauce that drove Rick Sanchez mad? They have all joined Nineveh and Tyre. How many times has McDonald’s tried to healthy-up its menu only to find that people don’t want salad? Their ability to control you is, I think, substantially overstated.
Markets provide people with what they actually want as tested against their willingness to pay rather than what the Bernie Sanderses of the world know to be best for us. This is a feature, not a bug. The whole process, no doubt, is distorted by permitting and regulation, and hence the profit test is not as informative as it would have been if the permitters and regulators and nudgers could content themselves to leave it well enough alone. They don’t, but they should–and perhaps in the process should reflect a bit on their need to feel important or benevolent by interfering with others’ affairs.