Political Animal


December 29, 2012 2:55 PM The Wonderbread and/or Freshly-Baked Baguette of Freedom

By Jesse Singal

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 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.


  • Dave L on December 29, 2012 3:15 PM:

    One word: hypermarche.

    The biggest store I ever saw was a Leclerc hypermarche in France. And it sold everything, from home appliances to wine, on one floor under one roof.

  • Fess on December 29, 2012 3:25 PM:

    Very thought provoking, Jesse, thank you. For what it's worth, neither I, nor anyone in my family, shops at WalMart. Best I can tell, it makes no difference whatsoever, but still, we won't shop there. It makes you realize how many conversations one engages in that refer to the fact that a given product or product type may be bought at WalMart for a perceived good price. I pretty much have my "I don't shop at WalMart" speech down pat.

  • c u n d gulag on December 29, 2012 3:54 PM:

    We are a fat, lazy, nation that wants MORE cheap stuff - not better stuff.

    And we don't want to travel to get things in different places.
    We'll actually pay more to have things under one roof (actually, that's more carbon neutral, when you think about it - since our mass-transportation options, unlike in Europe, are basically nil in most of the country, outside of urban areas).

    We value "Super-sizing," over super-quality.

    We are, "Buffet Nation!"

    And there's no place with more buffet's per square mile in this country, than the Secesh South.
    "Y'all come on down now! Hear? We got all the cheap, greasy, grub you and your... er, uhm... little family can gobble on down!'

  • Nancy Cadet on December 29, 2012 5:40 PM:

    Vive la différence ! I've noticed that Paris neighborhoods have a (fairly predictable ) range of shops: fishmonger, cheese monger, bread bakery, pastry shop, wine shop, pharmacy, fruit and vegetable merchants, supermarket, bookstore, etc. Contrast that to a gentrified Manhattan or Brooklyn neighborhood with a cut rate drugstore chain every two blocks , and beyond the affluent centers, a vast expanse of 99 cent stores, cheap furniture and "party stores," McDonalds or other fast food franchises, etc.
    It's obvious Western European governments have a tradition of protecting workers' rights and small business in a way that is inconceivable here despite the Repubs' cries of "no taxes, protect small business owners." Post world wars, the French government licensed tobacco shops and news stands only to war widows and disabled veterans.

    Thanks for highlighting the law review article.

  • Mimikatz on December 29, 2012 5:45 PM:

    The real tradeoff is between food that tastes like real food and is fairly labor intensive, and industrial food that is pretty tasteless. That so few people can tell the difference is pretty appalling. I'm not talking about people who can only afford industrially produced food, but otherwise educated and reasonably well off people who just don't know or have forgotten the difference. Food matters to the French and it permeates the whole process from farm to table. Well-produced food is available here in places where people value it, but most of what is available here scarcely qualifies as real food.

  • Christiaan Hofman on December 29, 2012 7:29 PM:

    France does have large supermarkets that sell basically everything, they're called hypermarchés, and I think the name says everything (hypermarket). They're actually very common there for quite long already, so if you have been in France and haven't noticed a hypermarché, you haven't opened your eyes. Also, you most definitely can get ibuprofen in supermarkets in Europer (though perhaps not everywhere in Europe and perhaps not in all doses.) In short: Whitman apparently once visited a town in French and now thinks he knows all about Europe. Sorry, but in this excerpt he sounds like an ideologue who wants to argue for American supremacy (and fails, as you indicate.) I am not much inclined to read the rest now.

  • JoyfulA on December 29, 2012 7:38 PM:

    We had a Carrefour (French chain) store move in when I lived in Philadelphia. It was so big the staff used roller skates. It had tires, a bakery, stereos, produce, underwear, just about everything for sale, but hardly any variety in any particular line. My cat wouldn't eat any of the three flavors of canned catfood it carried.

    It was a very odd concept for a store, in my opinion.

  • Turnipsmith on December 29, 2012 7:44 PM:

    This is a weird story. There are supermarkets everywhere in France and they all sell bread. Also, bread prices are strictly regulated and bread is subsidized-- a baguette is much cheaper in France than it is in the USA. What this has to do with producerism vs.consumerism is pretty mysterious.

  • xkcd386 on December 29, 2012 9:17 PM:

    "hypermarchés" and their implantations were strongly regulated - "loi Royer".
    This is not so much the case anymore since 2008.
    There is another vein of regulation ("vente à perte" for one, "remise arrière"...) for rebalancing the power of the monopsony over the supplier and smaller concurrents, with ongoing tinkering over the years.

    to Turnipsmith: the baguette is not subsidized. With enough consumer caring for fresh, good baguette - ( I will go to the baker I like best, even if I have to walk 5mn more, and I am not the only one), we get good ones for a decent price, bakers and the supply system being geared to it.
    German get good german bread cheaper than the same in France, but baguette there is more expensive. American get bland sliced bread cheap, and in most part of the US that's it.
    And you can get bad cheap frozen baguette in the French Hypermarché, but as an afterthought now; it didn't work very well, they were effecively discussion about how they could call their production (boulangerie or not...) and they set out to offer better bakery products, at least decent. In any case, they are industrial producers of baguette in France.

    Imho, American get the worst deal, but that is a matter of priorities.
    You get cheaper Ibuprofen. Lobbies of pharmacists and health care companies are good in France.
    On the other hand, they better have too, I won't select my Ibuprofen seller because of the taste... You don't make money on a real free market with standardized commodities.

    I will read the pdf, I hope the weird generalizations were just for the summary by Jesse

  • Informant on December 29, 2012 9:49 PM:

    I'll just offer the observation that the French journalist/economist Frederic Bastiat was remarking on this difference between approaches to political economy over 150 years ago: http://www.econlib.org/library/Bastiat/basSoph1.html#S.1, Ch.1, Abundance and Scarcity

  • gyrfalcon on December 29, 2012 9:52 PM:

    c u n d gulag:"We are a fat, lazy, nation that wants MORE cheap stuff - not better stuff."

    No, we are a nation where wages have stagnated and in some cases been dropping for 30 years.

    I've heard a few oligarchs say explicitly on Fox (clad in suits that would cost a couple of months of ordinary folks' wages) that Americans simply have to "get used to a lower standard of living."

  • Harvey Boulay on December 29, 2012 11:19 PM:

    Off in Hawaii so the time difference allows perusal of Saturday posts. Nice job. And few highjacked comments which is always nice. Thanks

  • HMDK on December 30, 2012 3:19 AM:

    Well, I'm in Denmark, and we've got supermarkets. But we also still have specialty stores. I live on the 13th floor (yes, we're not that superstitious) of a 14 story building, and on the ground floor I have both a butcher-shop, a bakery, two different supermarket chains and two fast-food shops, plus a green grocer. Ibuprofen? Yeah, you need a script, but paracetamol, you can get anywhere.I don't really get your obsession with Ibuprofen, though. I mean, it works. But it ain't addictive like crack. So why are you looking for a hook-up?

  • jhm on December 30, 2012 7:21 AM:

    I would mention that avoiding centralized control a la Wal-Mart not only protects smaller operations, it helps preserve regional differences (more variety) and curtails the need for massive recalls (after complicated investigations) resulting from industrial production. Of course these, as has been mentioned, are antithetical to wealth concentration, ergo presumably un-American.

  • Celui on December 30, 2012 8:58 AM:

    @Nancy Cadet et al: in France, the government years ago made a conscious effort in law to protect the viability of the 'petit commerçant', the neighborhood merchant who would employ his family members, local neighbors and serve the community and its interests. At times, this extended to hours that stores opened and closed, to the actual weight of a baguette (so that no purchaser would be shortchanged and no merchant would gain an edge over his competitor). France may still be a nation of petits commerçants who are not only the faces of French business, but the elements that constitute the fabric of that nation. And, yes, there are the 'grands surfaces', the Leclerc and Carrefour mega-stores which do in France make that nation into a sub-species of the American shopping mall mentality. For me, it's a pleasure to deal face to face with a shopkeeper whose quality is impeccable, whose knowledge of his clientele permits him to specialize his wares, and whose friendliness makes him a fixture to many. Strip this away, and it's 'Do you want fries with that?' in a culture where that should never be asked. And, yes: in Paris, don't expect to get your prescriptions filled at 'Le Drugstore' on the Champs-Elysées: it's a non-dispensing everything-else shop for tourists. A real druggist is also the closest that many French get to the doctor, because these 'pharmaciens' are also trained to recognize many illnesses and dispense appropriate medications. They're a part of the medical establishment, rather than a competitor. And, remember that European prices are usually higher here because those prices include the TVA (value-added tax) that supports the social services net offered in those countries. Single-payer national medical insurance benefit is not a question.

  • Fred on December 30, 2012 9:48 AM:

    Here in the hinterlands of sweden we got the "Maxi". It's a box store that is half department store and half super market. On the whole the grocery store has good quality, more variety than is needed and these days the prices seem to be mostly lower than the local Surper G or Food Lion were the last time I visited the USofA.
    The junk in the department store side is another story but then nobody is making me shop there. (where did I hear that lately?) And you can get ibuprophen there too.

  • Doug on December 30, 2012 11:47 AM:

    Supermarkets in France may sell just about everything under the sun but over the counter meds like Ibuprofen but  there's a very good reason for that. Unlike the US, French pharmacies are staffed with thoroughly trained professionals backed up by an available docteur of pharmacie. The US pharmacists are not available because of the inexplicable need to have them count pills, put them in bottles and label them. In Europe prescriptions are by box thus freeing up pharmacists to do what their expensive education has prepared them to do. The rest of the US sales people have zero training. The French pharmaciens (assistants) know what prescriptions each customer takes and check to make sure there will not be an adverse reaction from any over the counter meds as there would be for me with Ibuprofen since I can't take anti-inflamatory meds because of blood thiners.  One always goes in France to one's pharmacie where all prescriptions are on file.
    French bread is made by bakers who Jessie confuses with baker artisans who start from scratch. Contrary to what Jessie thinks French bread is cheaper than American fake bread. It's generally 75 centimes for a bagette which is two+ times the size of American imitations which sell for two+ times more. French bread is a bargain with or without regulation!
    The premise of the law review article re consumers seems valid from my experience. Supermarkets here in France consistently advertise, frequently on newspaper front pages, great bargains that are typically sold out to the early birds. The chains provide local stores with limited quantities of their specials. We actually went to 3 Intemarches once trying to get a lobster special. At the third store the fishmonger told my wife you have to be here before ten AM to get them. Rain check? No one ever heard of such a thing.

  • TomParmenter on December 30, 2012 12:06 PM:

    Just to toss my two cents in here, I am seriously missing Wonder hamburger and hot dog buns. It turns out that cheap, mass-produced buns produced by licensed bakeries all over the country are just right for hamburgers and hot dogs, a little bit tougher and firmer to hold all the grease and condiments together.

    Also, in Boston anyway, superarkets sell bread from independent bakeries -- Iggy's, When Pigs Fly -- and also have in-market bakeries to make fresh (if ordinary) loaves of Italian bread, etc.

  • Carwinrpc on December 30, 2012 1:34 PM:

    American bread is probably not a product to invite a favorable comparison. Even if we outlawed sale of mass-produced bread, the bread on sale at the bakery would STILL suck since we don't have a cadre of highly skilled bakers to produce the loaves.

    Of course, that's the real source of a big part of the problem: american industry has systematically deemphasized the importance of the skilled trades in an effort to combat unions and force semi-skilled workers to compete with each other by working for increasingly smaller paychecks. The boss gets more profit, the worker gets by each year on the same or a lower income, and Americans in general get to eat terrible bread.

    Crummy system.