A friend sent me an image of a hilarious product he found in the aisle of some store. I laughed hard. It immediately struck me as something ridiculous. It is a plastic contraption that helps you put on your socks. Like we really need that.
My immediate thought was: this is surely a rip off. Some people will make anything to ply a few bucks from your wallet. My mind went back to my childhood fascination with Ronco kitchen gadgets like the hotdogger and patty melt maker. These are things we buy based on our fascination with convenience but they only end up junking up our cabinets.
Surely the SockSlider was the same. Lol, as they say.
Some commentators caught the spirit.
“Is this what Foucault and Baudrillard meant by late capitalism?” one person asked.
“Peak capitalism,” another commented.
But then others introduced a slight complication.
“I got one for my mom with mobility issues. I love capitalism.”
“If you’ve ever been injured and unable to move, you’d understand how useful these things are.”
“Seriously though, this is great for people with bad hips. It’s hard to get into the end range flexion that we healthy people take for granted.”
I Was Completely Wrong
I got curious and went to Amazon product reviews. They are over the top, plus lots of customers reporting that they are thrilled.
See here: “My husband is a disabled veteran. He is not able to bend his legs and also has difficulties bending his back. He required my help putting on his socks and pants! I was skeptical when ordering your Sock Slider, but I can honestly say: this Slider is the best thing that has happened to my husband in a very long time! He is able to put on his socks AND pants without my help! Thank you so much for making a Veteran happy!”
The use cases are many. Pregnancy, back issues, obesity, arthritis, and any mobility issue that prevents a person from reaching all the way down to one’s feet to put on a sock. On reflection, I realized that this product is enormously useful. It might be the very thing that allows some people to get fully dressed and wear real shoes.
I, of all people, should have known that this product is real. The market does indeed provide. If something is a racket, it will get weeded out, provided there are free information flows, accountability, and means of spreading knowledge from consumer to consumer. Fortunately we are in the golden age of product reviews, so much so that it makes the government-based system of consumer product regulation look either redundant or ridiculous.
There is another matter too. When we look at products, our first impulse might be to think that if I don’t need this, it shouldn’t even be for sale. We have a hard time with economic empathy; that is, putting ourselves in another’s person’s socks, so to speak.
Disdain for the Public
As it turns out, many people have needs that cannot be appreciated or discerned in advance by intellectuals. Many times, they cannot even understand them. This has been obvious since the late 19th century, when the socialist critique of the capitalist market underwent a huge shift. The Marxists had predicted that capitalism would impoverish the working class while enriching the class of capital owners. When that turned out to be obviously false, the critique shifted: now the system was being attacked for providing too much in the way of frivolous luxury goods to the middle class.
The classic work advancing this theory was the quasi-socialist Thorstein Veblen and his influential book The Theory of the Leisure Class. To give you a sense of the whole tedious treatise, consider his analysis of how and why the middle class likes new clothing:
“The law of conspicuous waste guides consumption in apparel, as in other things, chiefly at the second remove, by shaping the canons of taste and decency. In the common run of cases the conscious motive of the wearer or purchaser of conspicuously wasteful apparel is the need of conforming to established usage, and of living up to the accredited standard of taste and reputability. It is not only that one must be guided by the code of proprieties in dress in order to avoid the mortification that comes of unfavorable notice and comment, though that motive in itself counts for a great deal; but besides that, the requirement of expensiveness is so ingrained into our habits of thought in matters of dress that any other than expensive apparel is instinctively odious to us. ”
Do you see what’s going on here? Veblen imagines that the the average consumer is a rube running around making choices with the instinct of animals. It has nothing to do with satisfying real human wants. These are illusions imparted in a brain by a misbegotten need to fit in. It’s all just a waste, he says. We should just be content with our lot in life and stop trying to look the part of our betters. The core problem of capitalism, he suggested, was precisely our obsession with living a better life. Capitalism is indicted because it makes that possible.
Such is the mind of the socialist intellectual from time immemorial, combing snobbery with disdain for the intelligence of the buying public (but these same people should be intelligent enough to overthrow capitalism and replace the whole consumer marketplace with a vanguard of a collective made from workers and peasants).
Revolution in Marketing
For centuries, people have misunderstood power relationships within the structure of capitalism. The conventional wisdom was and is that the people with the businesses (the capital) are in control. The on-the-ground reality is that consumers are in a position to make or break any business and drive the production decisions through their choices. This is the system that William H. Hutt called consumer sovereignty. Producers are beholden to the masses of people to make things that people show themselves willing to buy.
This logic of the marketplace overthrew the old order in which the powerful made the decisions over the use of scarce resources. This is why Ludwig von Mises said that the great innovation of capitalism was in its principle of marketing. No more would the well-to-do determine the course of history. Now everyone in the position to buy had the driving influence over what is made, how much is made, who gets rich, and who does not. Competition exists but it takes a different form: it is all about striving to be the best in the service of others.
Remarkable. All of us are too quick to dismiss products merely because we happen not to need them. If the product is a success, that indicates that someone needs them. Someone is benefitting. For someone, even the silliest-sounding thing could be a life saver. That is certainly true for the SockSlider. And it is truly for millions and millions of other things out there that you and I might not need or understand.
Economic empathy consists in the habit of mind to realize that none of us, as individuals, are in a position to know all things. This is the job of great entrepreneurs and marketers. It is a better system for organizing the use of social resources than anyone has yet imagined. Certainly our friend Professor Veblen did not or could not.