But Who Will Stock the Supermarkets?

On first seeing the bounty displayed in our supermarkets, the émigrés either froze at the endless array of choices in front of them, or they wildly loaded their carts, because they assumed the shelves would be empty the next day. This was back in the 1980s, when a wave of expatriates fled the Soviet Union for the United States. Many of them had host families to help them acclimate to American life, and it was from some of the hosts that I heard about these first encounters with America’s commercial abundance.

These émigrés could only understand what they saw within the context of their current belief system in central planning. Many may have initially thought that the United States had unbelievably effective five-year plans. What else could explain so much plenty? They were dumbfounded when told that no government official directed where a supermarket should open, what it should stock, from whom it should buy goods, or the hours it should be open.

“Whether you can observe a thing or not depends on the theory which you use.” —Albert Einstein

In the Soviet Union, when food ended up on the kitchen table, it was the result of command and control. Given their experience, the idea that order could emerge without central planning seemed unfathomable.

Consider this thought experiment. It is 1980 in Moscow. At a planning bureau meeting, someone says, “Comrades, we need less planning, not more. If we give up controls and establish property rights, the free market will stock our markets with plenty at prices cheaper than we could imagine. We just have to get out of the way.”

Imagine the replies if others engaged him in thoughtful discourse: “Comrade, you propose a fantasy. Who would order the farmers what to plant and how much to plant? Who would arrange for food pickers?” (Food often rotted in Soviet fields for lack of pickers.) “Who would arrange for transportation? And then our problems are just begi…