The Miracle of the Supermarket
Every year, during the third week of November, American grocery stores are swarming with patrons as families prepare today's Thanksgiving meals. As we consider and give thanks for all of the things we take for granted, we ought to be thankful for capitalism.
Learning about economics completely altered the way I see the world. Before, I understood human progress in a linear fashion: We enjoy many luxuries that were unknown to previous generations, only as a natural result of new discoveries and inventions. But I did not grasp an underlying cause that brought about prosperity in certain parts of the world—and certain periods—but not others. I now know that behind every technology we use and every opportunity to better our life, there is a complex history of individuals adding ideas to ideas, creating solutions in order to help one another and to earn a living. And this was all possible because of property rights, which forms the foundation for capitalism.
Without capitalism, the world as we know it would be fantasy.
One of the most inspiring demonstrations of this is the modern supermarket. It is easy to take them for granted, since supermarkets are such a routine part of our lives. But on your next trip, I encourage you to slow down, take a moment to think about your surroundings, where the various items have traveled from, and the endless number of people involved in bringing them to your fingertips.
Strawberries from California, blueberries from Maine, oranges from Florida, apples from Washington, grapes from Chile, coffee from Columbia, wine from Italy and sugar from Guatemala. Through most of human history, fresh food was limited to what people could grow close by. Oranges, for example, were once such a luxury item in Europe that it became a Christmas tradition to offer them as gifts. Now we have access to a wide variety of exotic foods—for their taste and nutritional value—and even products that are not in season locally can be shipped in from a different climate. Furthermore, new technologies are consistently improving quality and freshness.
In my local supermarket, fresh seafood is delivered and prepared from every coast in the nation. If one turns the other direction, they can sample an array of freshly baked breads and imported cheeses. A few more steps and they can select from any cut of meat one can imagine, already prepared to cook, and in some cases pre-cooked. Capitalism has made all of this available at less than an hour's wages for most people.
Years ago, a professor of mine was working to acclimate new immigrants from what was then the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). They would meet every week or so in small groups, and one day a gentleman, speaking in a thick Russian accent, balked at the notion of freedom and prosperity in the United States. He believed, as the anti-American advertisements back home had depicted, that only the wealthy have access to goods and opportunity, and that common citizens remain oppressed by capitalists and their unjust system of class slavery. The professor thought a brief visit to a local grocery store could be instructive, and for good measure, he chose a store in the heart of a lower-class neighborhood.
Upon seeing the variety of products and brand names that filled the shelves, the man began marching up and down the isles, fists in the air and full of anger, cursing Khrushchev and the Russian government for decades of lies. The people had been told throughout their lives that though goods were in limited supply, they still had greater opportunity than the common workers of the United States. But here he was, facing a different reality. A man so used to a single brand of poor-quality coffee suddenly had access to five or ten different brands and flavors, regular and decaf, all with a range of prices. He had entered a world that was not supposed to exist—especially in a capitalist system.
Supermarkets are a great example of what markets do: They provide a variety of goods and match buyers and sellers with products they like, at the price they consider fair. Though food is just as important as education, healthcare and housing, supermarkets have not been regulated in the way these industries have, and this has allowed an incredible amount of flexibility and innovation. In recent years, we have seen chains innovating and adapting to new demands with new approaches. Regardless of taste or income level, there is something for everyone.
For the very poor, we have food pantries, food banks and soup kitchens, which are usually operated by private organizations. Thankfully, the federal government has not installed public grocery stores in low-income areas. Instead, it has offered what is essentially a voucher program, giving food stamps to families so they can use them at the store of their choosing. Yet, it could be argued that more stores specializing in low-income needs may have emerged in the absence of such subsidies. We can only speculate.
As I enjoy my Thanksgiving feast today, I will be thankful for friends, family and our good health. But I will also be thankful that I did not have to farm my own turkey, much less prepare it. Nor did I grow the potatoes or pick the cranberries. I did not construct my own device for cooking at an even temperature, or build my chair and table, or cast the silverware. I will have travelled across town in a machine built and fueled by the ingenuity and hard work of others, so that I could be with those I love.
I will be thankful that something as impersonal as "capitalism" has enabled all of us to live as our ancestors could only dream of, and that so many in the world still do.