HAVE YOU EVER stayed up late at night worrying about whether there would be sufficient food in your community’s grocery stores the next day? Paced the floor over whether there would be the correct quantities of food for everyone? Fretted over whether rich people would buy up everything and leave nothing for you?
Probably not. And the reason you haven’t provides clues as to what we should do in the important areas of education and health care.
The free-market process of food delivery was brilliantly analyzed by a 19th-century Frenchman named Frédéric Bastiat:
On entering Paris where I came to visit, I said to myself — Here are a million human beings who would all die in a short time if provisions of every kind ceased to flow toward this great metropolis. Imagination is baffled when it tries to appreciate the vast multiplicity of commodities which must enter tomorrow through the barriers in order to preserve the inhabitants from falling prey to the convulsions of famine, rebellion, and pillage…. What is the ingenious and secret power which presides over the astonishing regularity of such complicated movements, a regularity in which we all have so implicit, though thoughtless, a faith; on which our comfort, our very existence depends?
Bastiat’s observation is as appropriate today as it was then. I don’t wish to frighten or panic anyone, but do you realize that there is no government department or agency in existence that plans for the delivery of food to your community? That’s right — it happens all by itself without any government plans, directives, or guarantees.
When you walk into the grocery store and see all those shelves filled with things to buy, no government planner has made it happen. No bureaucrat has sat at his desk and figured out “demand curves” relating every item to every person in your community. No government employee has calculated how much of each cereal, vegetable, drink, pasta, and the thousands of other things on your grocer’s shelves will have to be produced to satisfy your individual demand and the demands of the other consumers in your community.
The miracle of the market
I repeat: It all just happens, all by itself, without any government planning or direction. Getting nervous?
The process is what might be called “the miracle of the market.” Each night, every person in America can go to sleep secure in the knowledge that the next morning, his grocery stores will be filled with all the food that he might want to buy.
Suppose, however, that during the Great Depression, the U.S. Department of Food had been established to protect the American people against starvation and the vicissitudes of the market. Suppose that from the 1930s on, all grocery stores in the United States were government-owned and that no one had been permitted to own a private grocery store. There would, of course, be less variety and fewer choices with respect to groceries, but everyone would undoubtedly feel a sense of comfort and security over the fact that the government was in charge of the “public grocery stores.”
Now suppose I came along and said, “I believe we ought to separate food and the state. Let’s fire all the government food workers, sell off the state grocery stores, and turn the entire process over to the free market.”
What would be the reaction of most people? “We can’t do that. Food is too important an item to be left to the free market. How could we be sure that there would be enough food for everyone? What if one city didn’t receive any food and another received all of it? What if grocery stores forgot to order food one day? For that matter, what if no one opened grocery stores in our community? What about the poor? How would they eat, especially when the rich would be buying everything? You place too much faith in the free market. This program favors the rich. The burden of buying groceries falls most heavily on the poor.”
People would lack confidence in the free-market delivery of food because they would never have seen how a free market in food delivery had functioned.
Yet when it comes to the supplying of food to hundreds of thousands of grocery stores all across America, people do have faith and confidence in the miracle of the free market. After all, when was the last time you heard someone calling for government grocery stores?
Now, let’s talk about education and health care.