Paul Seabright on The Supply of Shirts

If there were any single person in overall charge of the task of supplying shirts to the world’s population, the complexity of the challenge facing them would call to mind the predicament of a general fighting a war. One can imagine an incoming president of the United States being presented with a report entitled The World’s Need for Shirts, trembling at its contents, and immediately setting up a Presidential Task Force.

The United Nations would hold conferences on ways to enhance international cooperation in shirt-making, and there would be arguments over whether the United Nations or the United States should take the lead. The pope and the archbishop of Canterbury would issue calls for everyone to pull together to ensure that the world’s needs were met, and committees of bishops and pop stars would periodically remind us that a shirt on one’s back is a human right.

The humanitarian organization Couturiers sans Frontières would airlift supplies to sartorially challenged regions of the world. Experts would be commissioned to examine the wisdom of making collars in Brazil for shirts made in Malaysia for re-export to Brazil. More experts would suggest that by cutting back on the wasteful variety of frivolous styles it would be possible to make dramatic improvements in the total number of shirts produced. Factories which had achieved the most spectacular increases in their output would be given awards, and their directors would be interviewed respectfully on television.

Activist groups would protest that “shirts” is a sexist and racist category and propose gender- and culture-neutral terms covering blouses, tunics, cholis, kurtas, barongs, and the myriad other items that the world’s citizens wear above the waist. The columns of newspapers would resound with arguments over priorities and needs. In the cacophony I wonder whether I would still have been able to buy my shirt.

Paul Seabright – The Company of Strangers

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