Swimming in the free market creek

by Audrey Pietrucha

We were fortunate to have some family members make the drive to Vermont and visit us a few weeks ago. Though they had been here before, we had a bit more leisure time this visit and took the opportunity to show them some of the reasons we moved to Vermont 20-plus years ago. My sisters-in-law, both of whom live in the Washington D.C. area, were particularly appreciative of the beautiful blue-green mountain landscapes, the fields full of purple wildflowers, the sparkling clear rivers and the charming red covered bridges.

It was a good reminder to us of why we are here. The natural beauty that surrounds Bennington and exists throughout Vermont and New England refreshes and inspires us daily. But it familiar and we human beings we tend to undervalue the usual. Habit and repetition, not to mention abundance, produce indifference and even contempt for the commonplace.

Earlier this year I received a similar reminder, this one regarding free market capitalism. The occasion was a visit to my favorite store in the world, the King Arthur Baking Center in Norwich. Wandering the aisles of this bakers’ wonderland I was in awe of the creativity and innovation on display. Just about anything and everything a passionate baker could want was available for purchase: Special baguette pans and bread proofing machines, cookies scoops and cupcake corers, chocolate in multiple forms and more mixes, extracts, and flours than would fit in a typical pantry.

Where did this all come from? It came from all of us. As we made our needs and wishes known, someone heard us and responded with crepe pans and parchment paper and English muffin rings. The good and services provided by a free market are there because millions and millions of consumers have provided criticism, suggestions, and feedback to the producers, who then use that information to invent new things and improve what already exists. The interaction is sometimes direct but more often indirect. Whichever way market players receive signals they act on that information and provide all the goods and services we so effortlessly obtain.

Free market capitalism is a favorite punching bag of intellectuals and populists who have benefited their entire lives from economic freedom yet don’t seem to realize it. Their lack of appreciation for their surroundings brings to mind the story of the fish who overhears a conversation between humans about the importance of water. The fish asks every other fish what water is and where he can find some but the other fish do not know what he is talking about. Finally an older and wiser fish explains water is that which surrounds and sustains the fish.

A more modern version of that story might involve someone sending anti-capitalism tweets from his iPhone. Modern human have benefited so fully and completely from the free market we don’t even realize it is the water in which we swim. We take for granted that when we walk into a store it will have what we are looking for and get pretty ticked off if that space on the shelf is empty. We expect the next version of whatever computer we use or car we drive to be better and eventually cheaper. We fail to realize how much goes into producing and managing the incredible inventories of food and stuff we so blithely buy, that the goods and services we so easily obtain are the result of millions of intelligent innovations and informed decisions on the part of our fellow beings. A free economy flows so easily and well we don’t even notice it.

Until that flow is interrupted by those who deem themselves wiser than the rest of us. When a small group of politicians or experts assumes control of any portion of an economy choices evaporate, quality declines, prices rise and supplies fall. In Vermont we are about to see this play out in the health care sector, where choice is being almost completely removed from consumers. Since many of the economic problems associated with health care today are the result of massive government intervention in that sector it’s doubtful further interference will result in high quality and affordable care. Yet many of us inexplicably believe a couple of boulders in the middle of our economic stream will calm the water.

There are many free market solutions to the problems within our health care distribution system but they were not given a chance. In a truly free economic system power is distributed broadly among its participants and solutions are allowed to evolve rather than be imposed. Imposition, however, is pretty much the purpose of government and elected officials will always justify their professional existence by “fixing” the very same things they broke in the first place. As they begin the business of plugging the leaks in our health care system let’s hope there are enough life rafts.

Audrey Pietrucha is a member of the Vermonters for Liberty executive board. She may be reached at vermontliberty@gmail.com.

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The Ethan Allen Institute is Vermont’s free-market public policy research and education organization. Founded in 1993, we are one of fifty-plus similar but independent state-level, public policy organizations around the country which exchange ideas and information through the State Policy Network.
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