Take a look at the accompanying photo. In its center are fresh blueberries that I purchased in January 2023 at a supermarket in northern Virginia. “Meh,” you shrug. But not so fast. These delicious and nutritious little gems were grown in Chile, in an entirely different hemisphere from where they were purchased. If I had to rely on my fellow Virginians to supply me with blueberries in the dead of winter, I’d be out of either luck or a princely amount of money, for to grow blueberries in the mid-Atlantic winter would consume costly quantities of equipment and energy.
Fortunately, blueberries can be grown this time of year in the southern hemisphere at a cost that makes them affordable to middle-class Americans. So I spent a paltry $6.49 for these 18 ounces of yumminess. To earn enough income to buy these blueberries, a typical private-sector “production and nonsupervisory” American worker today, earning $28.07 per hour, toils for only about 14 minutes.
Take another glance at the photo. The blueberries are packaged in a transparent, light-weight, sturdy, and resealable carton made from petroleum. I know no workers on oil rigs or in refineries. Nor do I know anyone who works in a factory making plastic cartons. Fortunately for me, however, the many strangers who perform those jobs willingly shared with me one of the many fruits of their labors so that I can afford to purchase some fruits from Chile. Without modern packaging, those blueberries, were I to get any at all, would be less tasty and much more pricey.
Modern packaging is a stupendous fruit of the innovation and productive coordination achieved by capitalism. Yet we ignore packaging without giving it as much as a first (forget about a second) thought.
This reality should cause your jaw to drop. And your jaw should be made to drop even further by the fact that this reality is so quotidian to us Americans that it does not cause your jaw to drop at all.
I, the person who will eat these blueberries, know not a single Chilean farmer. Nor do I know any Chilean truck drivers. I’m also unacquainted with anyone who pilots cargo planes or locomotives. And despite my frequent visits to the supermarket at which I bought the berries, I couldn’t identify the manager of that store’s produce section. Yet these farmers, truck drivers, pilots, and supermarket employees all willingly worked to make these blueberries, which were until recently growing on land thousands of miles from where I live, available to me, a stranger, in January. And for a pittance!
If you’re an American (or denizen of any other industrialized country), this photo is of what appears to be an unremarkable reality. It’s downright dull and seems to be information-poor. But upon reflection, this ‘ordinary’ photo testifies to the astounding daily achievements of the market order. From my ability even to take such a photograph (and at zero additional expense!) to the ready availability in the northeastern United States in mid-winter of fresh blueberries and grapes, this photo – seemingly ho-hum – is in fact a snapshot of capitalism’s marvels. This photo supplies proof as strong as economic proof gets that capitalism works.
Of course, even if, contrary to fact, all human beings agreed unanimously on what are perfect economic outcomes, capitalism does not and never will work perfectly. As a standard for assessing an economy’s performance, however, perfection is highly imperfect; indeed, it’s a standard so flawed as to be ridiculous. No human institution or pattern of activities will ever be perfect.
But if we take as the standard for economic performance improvements in the well-being of ordinary people, then capitalism’s performance is stupendous – stunning – spectacular – astonishing – amazing. The English language has no adjective sufficient to convey the marvelousness of capitalism’s routine performance.
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