Even as the coronavirus disease has put much of the economy into shutdown mode and caused a run at the grocery stores on some staples such as bread, most of us remain generally well-supplied with food. That is something to be thankful for.
It is indeed one of the great wonders of the modern economic system that the masses of people, very few of whom are actually directly involved in the production of food, have such great access to it. So abundant is the amount of food produced that we usually take it for granted.
The question as to how the economic system so successfully delivers food to the masses was pondered by French economist Frederic Bastiat in his book Economic Sophisms, first published in 1845.
“On coming to Paris for a visit,” wrote Bastiat, “I said to myself: Here are a million human beings who would all die in a few days if supplies of all sorts did not flow into this great metropolis… And yet all are sleeping peacefully at this moment, without being disturbed for a single instant by the idea of so frightful a prospect.”
How does it happen that every day, the necessary amount of food and other supplies flow into the city? The answer as to how Paris remained fed in 1845 is the same as the answer as to how Toronto, or Vancouver, or any of the other major cities in Canada remain fed in 2020. It is the result of voluntary exchanges between millions of people around the world.
To produce a loaf of bread and get it to the consumer, for example, there are farmers, millers, bakers, truck drivers, grocery store managers, and cashiers. And then there are also construction workers who build the necessary buildings, bankers who allocate the capital for all these operations, IT workers who make sure the grocery store’s computer systems work smoothly, and so on.
All of the millions of workers make their own plans independently, out of their own self-interest. Yet although their actions are not planned, dictated, and coordinated by any central planning authority, the end result is that all these actions combine in the free market to produce the abundance of food we normally see on the grocery store shelves.
COVID-19 has meant shortages of some items at some grocery stores for the time being, but overall, even in this economic and health crisis we are mostly well supplied. For this we have to thank the supply chains developed and productivity-raising division of labour made possible under the capitalist system.
Conversely, what if instead of a largely free market system, all these millions of workers – farmers, bakers, truck drivers, construction workers, and so on – were controlled by a central planner? Would our economy be better organized and more prosperous?
Quite the opposite: if some cabinet minister, noted Bastiat, however smart, decided to take control of the economic system – “to determine by whom, where, how, and under what conditions everything should be produced, transported, exchanged, and consumed,” the certain result would be widespread “misery, despair, and perhaps starvation.”
Indeed, the shortages for now of some grocery store items as a result of COVID-19 pale in comparison to the persistent shortages and lack of food in the poorest countries with the least amount of economic freedom. We should be thankful that in Canada, shortages are the exception instead of the rule.
Matthew Lau is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.