The Wonderbread and/or Freshly-Baked Baguette of Freedom

Since a decent chunk of Political Animal readers are or soon will be under a blanket of snowfall, it seems like as good a time as any to recommend a really interesting not-new article from the Yale Law Review I read recently: “Consumerism Versus Producerism: A Study in Comparative Law” (PDF) by Yale law professor James Whitman.

Whitman’s argument is that, very broadly speaking and with plenty of exceptions, American law is designed to promote consumerism (more specifically, a version of consumerism in which low prices are seen as the most important goal), while German and French law are designed to promote “producerism,” a system in which producers’ interests are well-protected and -regulated.

The article got me thinking a lot about freedom (now there is a lame sentence).

Take this excerpt, for example:

Visitors to French cities will know that shops tend to have more limited product lines than they do in the United States. There are no vast “drugstores” like Walgreen’s, selling both pharmaceuticals and sliced bread. Supermarkets do not sell medicines. Even the larger stores specialize. For example, there are fairly large drogueries, but they specialize in soaps, perfumes, and other hygienic goods. This relative absence of large all-purpose retailers can have a real impact on the consumer when it comes to some goods that Americans regard as basic. For example, it is impossible in continental Western Europe to buy ibuprofen except at a store staffed by a trained pharmacist — with the result that the cost of ibuprofen is much higher than it is in the United States. A similar story can be told about bakeries and bread. French law specifies carefully that no seller can call himself a “baker” unless he directly supervises the kneading and other processes, bakes the bread at the site of sale, and strictly avoids freezing at any stage. This is of course intended as a barrier to industrial production, and in turn to lower prices.

The American side of my brain was repelled by some of this. You’re going to over-regulate bread? It’s nuts! What about economic freedom! But then I thought back to Tom Slee’s wonderful book “No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart: The Surprising Deceptions of Individual Choice.” Our conception of “freedom” is pretty limited, especially temporally, and we forget some of the profound tradeoffs which certain policy decisions entail. It’s easy for us to get enraged about the zoning regulations or inconveniences we face today without thinking through what the long-run consequences would be in their absence. In Slee’s case, he argues that the choice we make to let Wal-Mart into our community today forecloses on a number of other choices we might have made down the road—choosing to have our community be walkable or contain locally owned shops, for example.

In other words, get rid of those pesky bread regulations and all the small shops offering really good bread at moderate or steep prices may be suddenly replaced with a few giant stores selling nothing but crappy bread on the cheap. It’s not an accident that in a good chunk of the U.S. you simply can’t buy really good bagels or bread. This—the ability to buy high-quality goods locally—is a kind of freedom. It’s a kind of freedom we view differently than do the French, but it’s a kind of freedom nonetheless. And the fact that we value it less than we value unfettered access to cheapness should be seen for what it is—a cultural/legal decision—not the inevitable result of “progress” or “common sense” or anything nearly so straightforward. Too often we view the American way of doing things as the only reasonable approach (a human tendency which surely applies to Europeans as well—they probably don’t have very nice things to say when they vacation over here and try to buy bread).

Now I definitely value the fact that I can buy Ibuprofen for cheap just about anywhere, and there are plenty of examples of European-style regulation that don’t involve tasty, crusty bread and which would therefore be more difficult to defend. The only point I’m trying to make is that our national discourse about “freedom” is rather stunted and often ignores how other developed countries do business.

Jesse Singal

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.