This wasn’t what I was planning to write, but it forced itself into my mind.
I’ve been re-watching some of the early episodes of The Simpsons (the later seasons are largely unwatchable; I knew the show was doomed after the last Sideshow Bob episode stank worse than Love and Monsters) over the last few days and one of them – Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish – reminded me why I have grown to detest Marge. But Marge isn’t the horror she grew into, in later seasons – not here. Marge is merely the idiot who doesn’t comprehend that free choice is sometimes an illusion.
The basic plot of the episode is fairly simple. Mr. Burns decides to run for Governor. Homer unwillingly supports him – “Mary Bailey isn’t going to fire me if I don’t vote for her” – while Marge is insistent that the family should support Mary Bailey. Towards the end of the episode, Mr. Burns decides he needs to show the human touch by eating dinner with a ‘normal’ family – and picks the Simpsons. Marge refuses, at first, to have anything to do with it; “I’m going to be ringing doorbells for Mary Bailey that night.” When Homer begs, she pretends to agree – and then ruins the campaign.
Which is good for Marge, isn’t it?
The first time I watched the episode, I agreed; Marge gave Mr. Burns a poke in the eye. And let’s face it, Mr. Burns is a heartless twisted blood-sucking monster who would probably make a horrible governor. Marge did the state a favour …
But tell me … what choice did Homer have?
Homer works for Burns. The Simpsons Family is utterly dependent on Homer’s paycheck. Is Homer in any position to refuse, when Burns demands that he host a ‘private’ dinner party? Does anyone really believe that Burns couldn’t or wouldn’t fire Homer if he refused to cooperate? (And do it in a way that would make it impossible for Homer to get another job.) Homer doesn’t have a choice – and he knows it (which goes to prove that Homer isn’t quite the idiot he’s supposed to be). Marge is the stupid person who’s prepared to ruin her family merely to make a political point.
The thing about choice is that it is quite often constrained – and sometimes in ways you might not expect.
Let me put forward the following scenario. There are two clothes shops in your town. One of them – Super Save – is cheap; the other – Wealthy Clothes – is expensive. A complete set of clothes for a single person can cost either £100 or £1000, depending on which one you choose.
Here’s another fact. Super Save is cheap because the clothes are made in a third world country, where the workers are paid peanuts for their work; Wealthy Clothes is expensive because their products are made in your country, where there is such a thing as minimum wage laws. In fact, their expensive clothes are actually not priced to gorge the customer. They’re charging the bare minimum to keep themselves afloat.
Imagine, for the sake of argument, that you’re on minimum wage yourself. Each month, you take home £1400. You have a family of four – yourself, your partner and two children. Which store do you shop at?
I’d bet good money you’d go for Super Save. £200 over £4000 for your whole family? It’s a no-brainer.
There are people who talk about making ‘ethical’ choices in shopping, about buying from firms that pay their employees a living wage rather than firms that exploit people in corrupt countries. And that requires that you have the freedom to make that choice without hurting yourself! Clothes from an ‘ethical’ firm might cost ten times as much as clothes from an ‘unethical’ firm. That ‘ethical’ coffee might cost twice as much as ‘non-ethical’ coffee. Recycled [whatever] may cost more than new [whatever]. Power from a wind farm may be far more expensive than power from a nuclear plant. And so on. And so on.
All of those pennies add up, one by one.
It’s easy to preach to people about how they should only use ‘ethical’ firms and purchase ‘sustainable’ goods. But I’d bet that most of the people doing the preaching aren’t actually paying for their own purchases. Because, if they were, they might understand why people make choices based on economics, rather than ethics.