What do you do if you want to buy vegetables? If you’re like most people, you head to the grocery store to buy food grown far away from where you live by people you don’t know under conditions you aren’t sure about. What if you had a choice to buy veggies from somebody around the block instead?
Sadly, I don’t eat vegetables the way I should, so I can’t remember the last time I’ve been in the vegetable section of a grocery store unless I was on my way to the meat counter or the ice cream aisle. But if I did suddenly become a healthy eater, I’d have a choice that a lot of people don’t have. I could walk two blocks to the little old house you see above and buy fresh vegetables grown in their yard — all without any licensing or health permits.
I feel pretty certain that this must be against city vending ordinances to do it in a residential area, but this older couple have been doing this since before I moved to the neighborhood more than 20 years ago. They’ve lived there in their modest little house since long before an affluent suburb grew up around them. The mayor of this little suburb lives within 50 yards of the house where these folks live, so I’m sure the city knows about it. Even though my little suburb likes to see itself as progressive and upscale these days, it leaves these people alone. Why? I assume it’s because they’ve been doing it for so long and because the people who live nearby actually like it.
This older couple aren’t going to win any awards for marketing or merchandising displays, but there’s something reassuring and honest about their little operation. I was thinking last night — not for the first time — that what they do is a perfect example of how commerce works when the state doesn’t give orders.
First, nobody tells these people what to grow. If they want to grow tomatoes and green beans and corn, they can do it. If their customers want to buy those things, even better. They don’t have experts telling them what to do. They just know what’s worth their time and effort, because they know local conditions far better than any expert might. (And if they’re wrong, only they will pay the price, but it’s a risk they decide to take.)
Second, nobody tells them the prices or gives them permission to sell. They sell with the permission of their customers. Nobody else.
Third, they trust their customers and their customers trust them. They don’t hire someone to sit at the road and wait next to the cash box. Instead, there’s just a table with the produce and instructions about where to put the money. (See the picture on the right? I took that after midnight Saturday night. The produce is still there, and so is the cash box — with money still inside. I checked.)
The instructions aren’t a model of simplicity or good spelling, but they work. They trust that the customers aren’t going to steal their stuff, and for those who might be thinking about stealing, they have a reminder — on the sign from a couple of years ago — that says, “Thou shall not steal.” At the same time, their customers trust them not to be selling food that’s been poisoned in some way.
Here’s the thing that planners of all stripes don’t understand. We don’t need them forcing their top-down plans on us. There’s nothing wrong with planning. I’m sure the older gentleman who lives near me plans his plowing and seeding each year. The problem is when there’s coercion. Nobody tells him what he has to do — and that’s what state planners are fond of doing.
The Austrian school of economics has been the biggest bastion of support for what’s been called spontaneous order. In this terrific essay from six years ago, economist Russ Roberts says that the great Austrian-school economist Friedrich A. Hayek complained that language is really inadequate at describing processes that emerge without intent ahead of time. Hayek and his fellow Austrians emphasized that it’s not just that the state shouldn’t plan things for people; it’s that the state can’t plan things adequately, because it’s impossible.
(For more on Hayek’s critique of why top-down planning doesn’t work, I recommend his book, “The Fatal Conceit: the Errors of Socialism.”)
Order emerges when people trust each other and pursue their own interests, not when bureaucrats make up rules that seem to make sense to them.
One final point to make is that the story of this older couple in my neighborhood isn’t all about the glories of locally grown food. Honestly, I don’t care much about that. Some people do. The point is that it’s your choice. You can buy your food — when it’s in season — from these nice folks around the block from me or you can buy your food from the Super Target or Winn-Dixie or Publix or Walmart or any of the other dozens of choices near my house. (That’s part of the produce selection at the Target near my house in the picture above.)
The point isn’t that one choice or the other is the better one for you to make. There isn’t a One True Way. The point is that it’s your choice to make. We don’t need the state making it for us, in produce or education or health care or anything else.