All Commentary
Saturday, May 1, 1965


 An editorial from the March 1962 issue of Insight and Outlook, a conservative student journal published in Madison, Wisconsin.

Amidst the books on the shelves of an acquaintance of ours, whom we know to be a man of refined sensibilities, we found to our as­tonishment a squat, homely can of beans. Ordinary pork and beans. Here was a mystery—what could possibly have moved our friend to place such an humble object among his less earthy vol­umes. A moment of insanity? Never. Hunger? Impossible. It was hard to push back the suspicion—had he had some didactic purpose in mind? What, indeed, can one learn from a can of beans?

It was a preposterous object, and irksome. A mere fleck of chaos in the otherwise impeccable surroundings of a civilized man. We tried to ignore it, but tension grew between us and that smug, disorderly tin. Curiosity overcame reticence; we picked it up fur­tively and turned it this way and that, hoping to divine its secret. It yielded none, for it was, after all, just a can of beans.

What can one learn from a can of beans? It has no poetic qualities to speak of, and is smaller than a breadbox. A symbol of the mass­es, perhaps, focusing their as­pirations for material betterment with nature’s parsimony? Dubious. Then we noticed the price: seven cents. Curiously low; was it some sort of novelty in the age of clipped coinage? What an enor­mous quantity of materials, tools, steps, services, and knowledge went into the production of the can: iron from the Mesabi, mined, shipped, refined, cast, stamped, rolled, shaped, coated with tin from Bolivia; paper label, a prod­uct of an entire industry, printed and dyed by two more; the beans themselves, and the pork, and sauce, raised, shipped, prepared, finally canned. Almost uncount­able processes of production, transportation, and marketing set into motion to disgorge the can. No one man or one hundred men had all the knowledge necessary to produce it, and yet it appeared—for seven cents. An excellent symbol of the interdependence of economic effects on the market. As we thus pondered, can of beans flagrante delicto in the hand, our friend entered the room.

“Rather the essence of social co-operation,” we said, replacing the can to the shelves.

“Just so,” he said, unperturbed. “Just so.”