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The Supermarket

Here’s a letter to a regular Café Hayek patron:

Mr. Runge:

Thanks for your e-mail.

You write that your sister, newly home from her sophomore year at Lehigh, informed you last night that “capitalism simply doesn’t work.” And you ask me to recommend material to share with her in hopes of prompting her to reconsider what you call her “flirtation with socialism.”

I could recommend Kristian Niemietz’s 2019 book, Socialism: The Failed Idea that Never Dies. Or Art Carden’s and Deirdre McCloskey’s 2020 Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich: How the Bourgeois Deal Enriched the World. Or Marian Tupy’s and Gale Pooley’s 2022 Superabundance. Or Jim Otteson’s 2021 Seven Deadly Economic Sins. Or Russell Roberts’s The Choice and The Invisible Heart. Or even this video. Relevant material all.

But if your sister resists reading assignments from her sibling, simply ask her to go to a supermarket. Safeway. Kroger. ShopRite. Wegman’s. Whole Foods. Walmart. It doesn’t matter. Ask her to wander down the aisles and behold all the items for sale. Really behold. Ask her to count the different kinds of items for sale. Ask her who makes that abundance of food and other grocery items possible. Ask her to take note of the packaging of each item. Ask her who designed those different packages. Who created the packaging materials? Ask her if she knows how to make plastic containers to hold mustard or glass bottles to hold merlot? Ask her if she knows anyone who knows anyone who knows anyone who knows how do so such things.

Ask her who picked the cucumbers? Who soaked them in vinegar and spices to pickle them? Who created the vinegar? Who found the spices? Who grew the bananas? The broccoli? The beets? Who squeezed milk from the cows? And from the almonds? Who caught the tuna? The tilapia? And who arranged the system of payments so that customers can purchase their groceries in a matter of seconds by swiping or tapping pieces of plastic?

Ask your sister what guarantees do supermarket owners have that customers will buy the items sitting on the shelves. Remind her that there are no such guarantees, yet despite this fact these strangers, every day, cram their shelves full of items from around the world and offer to sell them at affordable prices – items that no one is obliged to buy. And ask your sister if the supermarket she visits today will be open tomorrow and the day after tomorrow and next month. Ask her how she knows.

Ask your sister for the name and address of the country’s Grocery Czar or for the website of the Department of Supermarkets.

I know of no better and more accessible proof of capitalism’s success than the supermarket. One visit with an inquisitive, open mind to one of these modern emporia reveals the splendid (and in some cases literal) fruits of capitalist markets – the marvelous fruits of the division of labor, innovation, entrepreneurship, competition, finance, commerce and trade, and economic freedom.

Capitalism plants in every neighborhood across America monuments to its successes – monuments that, being so commonplace in the U.S. today, seem to be mundane. But they are in fact magnificent.

Tell your sister this.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030