The Mittens of Mr. Sanders: Economic Lessons

The mittens that Bernie Sanders wore at the inauguration of the new president have been a big hit in the media and in cyberspace. And we now know where the famous mittens came from, although most people miss the economic lessons of the story. The mittens were sown from recycled materials by a Vermont teacher called Jen Ellis, who moonshines in this artisanal hobby (Travis M. Andrews, “The Handwarming Story of How Bernie Sanders Got his Inauguration Mittens,” Washington Post, January 21, 2021).

Remember Adam Smith’s pin factory. In the second part of the 18th-century, the division of labor allowed 10 men working together to each make the equivalent of 4,800 pins a day, while a single man working alone could only make 20 at most and perhaps not more than one pin (The Wealth of Nations, 1776). Now, apply that to mitten production.

Ms. Ellis reportedly spent an hour making Mr. Sanders’s mittens. If she had spent that hour working in a clothing factory instead, she would have produced several pairs of mittens, perhaps dozens or hundreds of pairs. As Adam Smith saw for pins, the division of labor dramatically increases productivity—and even more dramatically with modern machines that did not yet exist in the early years of the Industrial Revolution. The numerous pairs of mittens produced by Ms. Ellis’s work in an hour could have been sold to Walmart or Dollar stores, keeping warm the hands of many poor. She chose instead to produce one pair for a wealthy Vermonter. (The 2016 purchase by Mr. Sanders and his wife of a house in a wealthy Lake Champlain neighborhood, documented by a local Vermont newspaper, has not been contradicted by Snopes.)

Note that, except for the economic lessons, none of that is our business. Assume that Mr. Sanders’s income from taxpayers represents what has been necessary to incentivize him to give up private employment opportunities and be as productive or more productive for voters (and detrimental to none). Individual preferences (which guide individual actions) are subjective, and Ms. Ellis obviously preferred the recognition and gratefulness of Mr. Sanders to the contentment of several poor individuals.  She is, or should be, free to produce what she wants with the technology she prefers and sell or give her products to whom she wants. She is not, or should not be, obliged to bake a cake for the poor. On his side, Mr. Sanders is, or should be, free to wear the mittens he wants, however eccentric or ostentatious, just as people who want deodorant should be free to buy the sorts they want, despite what Bernie himself thinks; or just as people who want dolls for their daughters should be free to purchase them from Chinese producers or anywhere they find what they consider a good bargain, despite what Sanders’ co-politician Donald Trump proposed.

What Mr. Sanders and Ms. Ellis have enjoyed is called economic freedom. It is the regime that, in general, best and most equally allows individuals to satisfy their preferences.