I was talking in the Midwest a few weeks ago, and the issue of supply chain disruption came up. One woman in the audience expressed surprise that despite the media coverage she personally felt so little lack of first hand. Besides, he added a thought for his favorite yogurt. For a while it was hard to find. “But,” he quickly corrected with an eye roll, “this is the first world problem.”
“First World Problems.” This is an expression that has been around for some time, but now seems to be particularly prevalent. I can only guess how fortunate we are in the developed world in the increasing use of the phrase, especially in recent memory related to the growing perception of covid’s limitations, deficiencies and stresses. For whatever reason, it seems appropriate to express our gratitude for the limitations of the various products and services around us.
While the statement is innocent, it points to a thinking that is often undesirable. Over the past decade, one or two articles have denounced the phrase “first world problems” as an unbearably sensitive type of self-criticism. According to Alexis C. Madrid Atlantic In 2011 (citing a Twitter thread):
I don’t like the expression “first world problem”. It’s false and it’s reprehensible. Yes, Nigerians are fighting floods or infant mortality. But these same Nigerians also face worldly and seemingly luxurious troubles. Connectivity issues with your BlackBerry, the cost of car repairs, how to sync your iPad, what brand of noodles to buy: the problems of the Third World কোনো none of this is enough to deny the existence of social stratification and elite structure here [in the US]. There are rich and famous lifestyles, sure. But the interesting thing about modern technology is how socially mobile it is – quite literally. Everyone in Lagos has a phone.
Fair enough! There may be many Americans who have a misconception about how far and wide technical magic has become. And there are probably some Americans who believe that jobs that we find tedious are not for people in underdeveloped economies. I have no objection to this objection, although I cannot think of anyone I know for whom it applies. (In contrast to that author, I have no doubt that modern technology giants are willing and able to reliably disappoint consumers regardless of their culture or the economic sophistication of their nation.)
Yet I offer a separate and distinct critique of the oppression propagated through the label “First World Problems.” Namely, our persnicketiness is acquired. The innumerable, seemingly unreasonable benefits, manners, and delicious foods that we enjoy are not stolen goods. They are not merely the product of dumb luck.
Dismissal behaviors as “first world problems” are essentially products of growing expectations where innovative products and services are concerned. These items, over the years and generations, have been cultivated by market interaction and have become increasingly less appreciated (arguably fast-extinct) more social and cultural. Among the major: entrepreneurial tendencies; An obsession with immediate costs versus savings and investments; A productive policy that, once common, is now denigrated as “workaholism”; Unwavering defense of private property rights; And strict individualism.
To these economists, what describes the “problems of the first world” is the perception of Mieses’s concept of “consumer sovereignty.” Not only are consumer tastes and aspirations essentially indicating production, and not only are companies responding by creating products and services to capture consumer dollars, they are desperately fighting for continuous improvement and change in the above mentioned items. The introduction of shorter features, increased reliability, greater availability and improved timeliness are the result of personal interest in satisfying the aspirations of buyers. As a result of the improvement in good health, the tendency is to move so fast that it seems (or feels) ungrateful at best, at worst.
No worries. Our restless grievances, unrealistic expectations, and perpetual annoyance over trivial aspects of products or services were obtained through entrepreneurial risk taking, economic calculations, and (relatively) uninterrupted operation of the (relatively) free market. And the awareness of the plight of other, less developed places, knowingly, fairly and humbly, should not be a source of embarrassment or rebuke to the “problems of the first world.” They are certainly less serious than the other dilemmas. But they are the problem. More importantly, the “first world problem” is a kind of problem that we must not only accept, but understand its foundations – and preach the conditions for their continued creation.