The Virtue of Peanut Butter Sandwiches


Written by: Simon Venter

There is a serious flaw in the way people approach problems, or rather perceived problems, and the way they have a habit of advancing ‘solutions’ for which they may take no responsibility should they be wrong. This piece is an allegory.

In early January my family and I packed up house to move from Hilton, KwaZulu-Natal, to Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape. The day that the movers came to pack up our home, turning it into a house, arrived shortly before we were scheduled to depart for PE. Due to a miscommunication between my mom and the lady who booked Pickfords for us, the gentlemen responsible for moving our worldly possessions were under the impression that they had to be done with the house by midday, when that was not in fact the case.

It is due to this miscommunication that the virtue of the peanut butter sandwich comes to light. As the men had not planned to be in Hilton past lunch time, none of them had packed lunch for the day – it was six by the time they left – and since we were to leave for Bloemfontein the next day, all our food had been thrown out or was packed – that which would not perish. Leaving only a loaf of bread, peanut butter and syrup among a few other odds and ends.

Seeing the plight of the movers, one of my sisters was moved to ask my dad if he could go out and buy the men some refreshments, something to drink and some sandwiches, as she felt bad that we had bought lunch whilst they were hard at work on empty stomachs. Due to the obvious cost catering for about 12 hungry men would entail, my dad said no; a response that my sister found very displeasing. It was at this point that I recalled a few points made by Thomas Sowell about how those that perceive a ‘problem’ are more than happy to suggest a ‘solution’ if it does not come at their own expense or that they will not have to face the consequences if their ‘solution’ was not in fact a ‘solution’ and that what is most often the thing that works is the approach of trade-offs. One could also apply Nassim Taleb’s “skin in the game” principle.

In this case, the consequence my sister would not have had to face would be being out of pocket a few hundred rands. The ‘trade-off’ as suggested by me was that she makes a peanut butter and syrup sandwich (the title would have been too long) for the men as opposed to sitting back and feeling bad that dad had not followed her ‘solution’. Having followed my suggestion, with the only hurdle being using a plastic camping spoon to spread the peanut butter and syrup onto the bread, we commenced making the sandwiches. Once done she informed the men of the sandwiches that awaited them – sandwiches that they said tasted amazing – and just like that, instead of her suggesting ‘solutions’ for which others would have to foot the bill, she had taken the ‘trade-off’ and done something proactive that required her putting “skin in the game”.

It was this scenario, however small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things, that sparked this thought process. This little scenario illustrated a bigger point; often people look at a situation and see something they think to be wrong (often with only partial knowledge of what is occurring), then without serious thought, they begin spouting forth ‘solutions’ that will not cost them directly, be it in terms of time, liberty or monetarily. For things ranging from the minimum wage to ‘solutions’ for climate change.

Hence, the virtue of peanut butter sandwiches: if you encounter something that you find concerning but your immediate response is to lobby for others to take responsibility and incur great risk and responsibility whilst you can carry on your merry way unscathed, then you have not helped but merely caused a moral panic. And moral panics seldom result in anything but authoritarian responses.

Whenever confronted with a situation that strikes you as worrisome, ask yourself, will you act out of guilt, or compassion. Depending on your answer, you will either have “skin in the game” or be playing with other people’s pieces.

Author: Simon Venter is a young artist and student currently studying a BA MCC at Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth. Simon’s main intellectual influence is Thomas Sowell.