Guest editorial: The Miracle of the Market



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The Miracle of the Market by Jacob G. Hornberger

In preparation for the two recent back-to-back blizzards,
D.C. residents were emptying the shelves of neighborhood grocery stores.
Notwithstanding the pre-blizzard panic buying, what’s interesting is that no one
was freaking out about whether the stores would be ade”uately stocked after the

After all, think about it: there is absolutely no government
planning that goes into what is stocked in grocery stores. No federal
Department of Food. No local or state planning commission. No grocery boards.
No bureaucrats or bureaucracies. No laws re”uiring grocery stores to be
well-stocked. No rules and regulations dictating how much of each food item,
including bread, milk, and chicken, needs to appear on the shelves.

So, how in the world do grocery stores get stocked without
government planning or direction? How is it that so much food appears, almost
by magic, within a day or two after most of the shelves have been emptied?
Indeed, how do grocery stores manage to have more than enough food for people
throughout the year given that no government department or agency is doing the
planning and issuing food directives?

Let’s look at the situation another way. Suppose that in
1900, it was decided that food was just too important an item to be left to the
free market. To ensure that there would always be enough food for people, state
and local governments took over the grocery-store industry, just as they took
over the education industry. To provide support for grocery stores, the U.S.
government established the federal Department of Food to provide grants and set
standards for the grocery stores, just as the U.S. Department of Education does
for state and local public schools.

So, imagine that we’re here in 2010, having lived under more
than 100 years of a system of government-run grocery stores. Wouldn’t people be
incessantly complaining about the shoddy ”uality of products and services, as
they constantly do with the state-run schools?

Along come libertarians and say the same thing about the
grocery business that they say about the education business. Get government out
of the grocery business, at all levels — local, state, and federal. Abolish the
federal Department of Food. Sell off all the grocery stores. Abolish all the
taxes needed to run the grocery stores. Separate food and state, just as our
ancestors separated church and state. Let the free market reign in the
grocery-store industry.

What would today’s statists say? They would say the same
things they say when libertarians call for the same solution in education. “Where
would the poor get their food? There would only be grocery stores for the rich.
How could we count on the free market to make sure that there was the right
amount of food for each grocery store? What if some grocery stores went empty
while others were plentiful? How could we be sure that each grocery store
received the correct ”uantities of each item? You libertarians are dreamers. Do
you honestly believe that you could leave something as important as grocery
stores to the free market?”

Yet, today no one gives a free market in food a second
thought. Every day, people have a wide range of grocery stores from which to
choose, each one vying for his business. Practically every day — blizzards
being a possible exception — every one of those grocery stores is packed with
food, all with a dizzying array of choices.

And it’s all accomplished through the miracle of the market,
with no government planning or direction. And no one gets freaked out about the
fact that it all happens without government intervention. People just take it
for granted.

Now, while we’re on the subject of a free market in the
grocery-store industry, can we talk about the same thing in the context of the
education industry?

• Jacob Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of
Freedom Foundation. other blogs may be found  at

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