Why the Economy Still Matters

Boris Yeltsin visiting Randall’s grocery store

By, Jason Andrew Garshfield

First, a quick story:

In 1989, Soviet politician Boris Yeltsin visited the Johnson Space Center in Houston. On his way back, he decided that he wanted to see how ordinary Americans ate, so he took an impromptu detour to a Randall’s grocery store in Clear Lake, Texas. This was an ordinary store, not even in the best part of town, utterly indistinguishable from a thousand others just like it across America.

The Houston Chronicle reported what happened next:

“Yeltsin, then 58, ‘roamed the aisles of Randall’s nodding his head in amazement,’ wrote Asin. He told his fellow Russians in his entourage that if their people, who often must wait in line for most goods, saw the conditions of U.S. supermarkets, ‘there would be a revolution.’

“‘Even the Politburo doesn’t have this choice. Not even Mr. Gorbachev,’ he said. When he was told through his interpreter that there were thousands of items in the store for sale he didn’t believe it. He had even thought that the store was staged, a show for him.”

The rest is history. Yeltsin could not get the grocery store out of his mind. Within two years, he had left the Communist Party and become the first democratically-elected president of Russia. He later admitted that the visit to the Randall’s in Clear Lake had been instrumental in changing his views. After a half century of cold war, after millions of deaths in Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, and elsewhere; after NATO and the Warsaw Pact, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Prague Spring; it was an American grocery store that pierced the Iron Curtain and brought down the Soviet Union.

What does this have to do with us today? Well, we in the United States tend to view the economy as an abstraction, something vague and distant from us. We are permitted the luxury of thinking this way precisely because of the great success of the American economic system.

Indeed, most Americans have lived their entire lives in a society where a miracle such as a grocery store – and the vast, intricate network of production and distribution that makes it possible – is taken utterly for granted. The success of the economy is so complete that it has become invisible; it is only in extreme circumstances that the economy briefly sheds its veil. Americans who have seen empty shelves at the grocery store in the past few weeks are being afforded a fleeting glimpse of the true power of the economy.

It is the free market which gives us the luxury to complain about the free market. We might not appreciate the vast bounty that American capitalism has afforded us, but someone such as Boris Yeltsin, who has seen the alternative, will be left with no doubt whatsoever about which system is superior.

Those who have spoken about the economic risks of a long-term coronavirus lockdown have been dismissed as wanting to “kill Granny for the sake of the stock market.” The economy, however, is hardly confined to a few city blocks in Lower Manhattan. It is something that affects each of us every single day. If it fails, we shall have no choice but to notice. Voicing economic concerns at this stage, therefore, is entirely legitimate.

This dismissal of such concerns has become trendy these days not just on the left but also among conservatives, particularly those of a paleoconservative and traditionalist bent. It is true, men do not live by bread alone – but you still need bread to live. Capitalism does not answer all moral considerations, but it does provide a firm foundation by which these considerations can be addressed. It is much, much easier to build a stable and harmonious society when people are not starving.

This current pandemic should not be taken as a refutation of the power of the market, but a reaffirmation of its importance. Nor is this analysis limited to grocery store shelves. When effective treatments are eventually developed for the coronavirus, it will be due in large part to the ingenuity of medical researchers who have been given the intellectual freedom to pursue solutions.

It was China’s authoritarian censorship of Dr. Li Wenliang and other early whistleblowers that got us into this situation. It is the American way which will get us out of it.

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