A recent episode of Freakanomics Radio examines the bizarre human compulsion of wearing shoes. Most of us, most of the time, do not find wearing shoes bizarre, but consider that for about three-fourths of human history our ancestors thrived despite lacking footwear. And to say “despite” may be misleading, since it turns out that wearing shoes diminishes the functionality of the feet and related muscles on which previously we, as hunters who ran our prey to death, depended for survival. Consider that feet are physiologically more similar to hands than we assume; they could be nearly as dexterous and sensitive as hands were they not relegated to the function of merely filling up our shoes. And consider that by wearing shoes for so much of our time in motion, we cause ourselves joint problems by overusing our hips and knees, we shorten our Achilles tendons and calf muscles, and we prevent our feet from developing protective callouses.
One may protest with various reasons why going shoeless is unacceptable now outside of the house and a few other limited settings such as a beach or pool side: we are no longer adapted to going barefoot in nature; we were never intended to trod human-made surfaces such as pavement; it is unsanitary and dangerous not to wear shoes; and our feet are ugly and smelly! But think twice about this logic. Is it bizarre to go barefoot, or is it bizarre that we made a world where it is hazardous and unseemly to expose our feet? What should seem more unacceptable, going barefoot or producing glass objects to contain liquids and then throwing those objects into the street where they shatter into sharp edges left for children and animals to cut themselves on and contract disease? Are feet actually smelly and ugly by nature or because we trap them and the heat they emit inside socks and shoes most of the time?
There are circumstances in which wearing shoes seems useful and even necessary in natural terms, e.g., when outside in frigid temperatures or when walking over rocky terrain. But plenty of animals limit their range and activities because of the physical limitations of their body parts; we don’t have to live in frigid climates or trod rocks in order to thrive as humans. Moreover, were we to spend our lives barefoot, our tolerance for being barefoot in the cold or over rocky terrain would be substantially improved, so we may not be as limited as it seems.
The overall point is not that we should stop wearing shoes but that the dynamic of supply and demand is not so straightforward as it is presented in the ideology of market economics. We tend to think that, first, there is demand, then, the market responds with supply to meet the demand. But shoes exemplify the chicken and egg problem with the nature of supply and demand. We demand shoes not because we need them but because we grew up being socialized to wear shoes and, as a result, our feet are smelly, ugly, and weak. And even to the extent that we have a physiological need for footwear, that need is not natural, but created by other conditions artificially produced by the market economy. We demand shoes because we shatter glass bottles on the street. We demand shoes because we have depleted or otherwise saturated opportunities for exploiting natural resources in warm climates. Humans do not need shoes; capitalism does.