Why we need each other: ‘The $1,500 Sandwich’

We tend to put those who place their faith in the market economy at the libertarian end of the political spectrum, as far away from us communitarians as you can get.

But… the fact is that the modern marketplace itself, properly understood, starkly demonstrates that no man is an island, and that we are profoundly interdependent in the modern world.

I enjoyed this little demonstration of that fact in this passage from a Cato Institute blog (of all places), quoted by The Wall Street Journal today:

From an online post by Cato Institute researcher and editor Chelsea German, Sept. 25:

What would life be like without exchange or trade? Recently, a man decided to make a sandwich from scratch. He grew the vegetables, gathered salt from seawater, milked a cow, turned the milk into cheese, pickled a cucumber in a jar, ground his own flour from wheat to make the bread, collected his own honey, and personally killed a chicken for its meat. This month, he published the results of his endeavor in an enlightening video: making a sandwich entirely by himself cost him 6 months of his life and set him back $1,500. . . .

The inefficiency of making even something as humble as a sandwich by oneself, without the benefits of market exchange, is simply mind-boggling. There was a time when everyone grew their own food and made their own clothes. It was a time of unimaginable poverty and labor without rest.

We are light years removed from the society of totally independent yeoman farmers that Thomas Jefferson idealized. And personally, I would never have wanted to live that way, anyway.

I liked this parenthetical from the Cato post, which the WSJ left out:

(It should be noted that he used air transportation to get to the ocean to gather salt. If he had taken it upon himself to learn to build and fly a plane, then his endeavor would have proved impossible).

Kind of reminds me of that joke about the hubris of science:

God was once approached by a scientist who said, “Listen God, we’ve decided we don’t need you anymore. These days we can clone people, transplant organs and do all sorts of things that used to be considered miraculous.”

God replied, “Don’t need me huh? How about we put your theory to the test. Why don’t we have a competition to see who can make a human being, say, a male human being.”

The scientist agrees, so God declares they should do it like he did in the good old days when he created Adam.

“Fine” says the scientist as he bends down to scoop up a handful of dirt.”

“Whoa!” says God, shaking his head in disapproval. “Not so fast. You get your own dirt.”

Actually, the version I heard was more involved, with the scientist saying something like, “First, I’ll mine for the requisite minerals, and…” But the punchline was the same: “Get your own dirt,” or maybe “Make your own dirt.”

You get the idea.

9 thoughts on “Why we need each other: ‘The $1,500 Sandwich’

  1. Kathryn Fenner

    While I get the point of the article, and agree, it is a stupid point: unless food is hunted or gathered, it takes a while to grow/raise. One would not have to “make a sandwich” to eat, either. Pickles, for example, started as a way to preserve cucumbers (or cabbage, in the case of sauerkraut) , and were discovered to make a great garnish–not developed in order to garnish a sandwich. Sandwiches were developed to deal with leftover roast or smoked meats, as bread was devised to provide portable, ready-to-eat energy, rather than having to boil whole grains for an hour or more to eat them as a pilaf or porridge. No one set out to make a sandwich from scratch. Sandwiches were a solution for extending more basic foods.
    Perhaps if we spent more time making our food and clothing from scratch, the planet would not be in such dire shape, and we would realize that we need others. Instead, I order from Amazon, and a big brown polluting truck brings it to my door.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      All good points, but rather beside THIS point.

      Yeah, a hunter-gatherer who was hungry would simply kill the first critter he could find and eat it, without waiting for bread or condiment or garnish. (Like me, the guy on the paleo diet.)

      But in our complex, interdependent world, we’re blessed to have at our easy, affordable disposal such rich, complicated, delicious foods that aren’t particularly good for us.

      Wait. That didn’t come out right…

  2. Lynn Teague

    Ethnographic studies show that how much labor one must put in when living on a largely self-sufficient basis depends a lot on both how you acquire your materials and what you want. For example, Sahlins’ classic study of the San Bushmen of Africa showed that they traditionally acquired most of their protein and other important nutrients from Mongongo nuts (fruits actually). Gathering these nuts left them abundant free time to develop complex story-telling traditions and other activities. The nuts provide a more nutritious and reliable diet than local horticulture. The Bushmen didn’t have to work much at all. The catch — you have to be willing to live largely on Mongongo nuts and have very few possessions.

  3. Bryan Caskey

    You have to have trade and commerce to be economically efficient, and I think Jefferson knew that. Trade and commerce had been around for hundreds of years in Jefferson’s time, and I think he knew that his agrarian ideal wasn’t realistic.

    He demonstrated his understanding of this when he sent the Navy to open up a can of whoop-ass on the Barbary pirates who were raiding our merchant ships. However, I’m deducting points for him (trying to) totally cutting off trade with England and France with the Embargo Act.

    I’m writing this as I eat a $7 gyro from Devine foods.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I much preferred Jefferson the president to Jefferson the political theorist. Some of the best things he did for this country were inconsistent with his small, weak government philosophy — the Louisiana Purchase, the undeclared war with the Barbary Pirates (something that he couldn’t have done if he had prevailed in his arguments against having a Navy)…

      1. Phillip

        Not so fast on the “undeclared” aspect of the First Barbary War. True, there was not a formal declaration of war by Congress, but they passed at least ten resolutions authorizing offensive military operations against the Barbary States. At earlier stages of the conflict Jefferson refused to go beyond the most basic defensive actions to protect American shipping, without explicit Congressional approval, reporting to Congress that “I communicate…all material information on this subject, that in the exercise of this important function confided by the Constitution to the Legislature exclusively their judgment may form itself on a knowledge and consideration of every circumstance of weight.”

  4. Mark Stewart

    You’d like yeoman agrarianism if you were Jefferson; ever visited Monticello? Thomas J. knew a thing or two about living beyond one’s means off the labors of others.

    I’m glad Jefferson was such a decisive politician, otherwise we would have to remember him for his backward, though bucolic, utopianism and fore being that era’s prince of consumerism.


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