Have you ever noticed that the food in the cafeterias of our public schools is not all that different from prison food? Nominally nutritious, it does not taste very good. The same is also true for food in other institutional settings, where people have very little choice. This is why food in hospitals is not very tasty, though it can be quite expensive, and why the food in concentration camps is also pretty bad. And don't even get me started on what they feed chimpanzees in zoos and sanctuaries!
|A Bowl of Oatmeal Can Be Had At Home|
Now, before you stop me and say: "Well, of course, the food in concentration camps isn't very good! It's not supposed to be!" -- Let me tell you, not every concentration camp is intended by the people who run it to be a death camp. Some Camp Commandants really do want to provide their inmates with humane and even happy circumstances. But there is something about the concentration camp setting that makes it impossible, even when the inmates themselves are preparing the food they will eat. And while we might be tempted to say that this is just the nature of cafeterias, that is demonstrably not true.
Contrast your average institutional cafeteria -- school, hospital, geriatric nursing home -- with your favorite cafeteria-style restaurant. Why is it that the food is bad in the former and good in the latter? It's not so much the price, but the fact that diners have a choice. We vote with our money, rather than in some other way, and every vote is a veto. The votes are not averaged out. There is no majority rule. We do not collectively decide which restaurant we are all going to patronize. Each of us takes our small wad of cash and decides for himself. And that makes a huge difference!
Each of us gets to decide whether we eat out or not, when we eat out, how often we eat out, and where we choose to eat. The money that we use on our dining choices does not merely pay for the food and the service -- it also serves as quality control. Take away the right to say no, to decide not to eat there, and while there still will be food on the table at first, it will not be as good -- nor will the service be adequate.
|Excerpt from Our Lady of Kaifeng: Courtyard of the Happy Way|
The problem with public as opposed to private cafeterias is not redistribution of resources. It is that marketplace voting is no longer operating as quality control. At Weihsien, people could still vote who the head cook would be, but they made that decision collectively. Individuals had lost their veto. They could no longer decide to take their business elsewhere, because to allow them to do so might cause somebody who is not as smart or farsighted to go without food altogether. Even when the choices are more varied than that, the fewer choices people have, the less likely their choices are to function as quality control.
Of course, it's not always clear what has happened. For instance, in the average American school cafeteria, people can still bring food from home and turn down the cafeteria food. But did you know that once most of the children are eating cafeteria food, some entirely subsidized by the government while others still paying a fee for their share, the votes of the children who do not like the cafeteria food count for considerably less than in an open market? It is this kind of creeping change that has reduced the quality of the food in the American supermarket, as well. When free market-style choice is coupled with forced choices that are legally introduced into the system, we don't always see clearly how we have been robbed of our veto. Many food choices that we might like to make today, such as buying unpasteurized milk, have been driven underground, where people must pay cash. Yet the people on public assistance with food stamps are becoming a bigger and bigger market share in the supermarket. When producers of valuable food are forced to sell it not on the open market, and a large percentage of consumers are forced to buy only in the supermarket, the food in the supermarket no longer represents our free choice. In those areas where a majority of shoppers are not there by choice, the quality of the food in the store is considerably reduced. Even liberals have noticed that food in poor neighborhood supermarkets is not as good. But do they understand why? It is because the free market has been disrupted there.
When people have no choice, they cannot exercise a veto on bad food. And that's why a lot of food available in the store today isn't as good as it used to be. This is not a failure of the free market, but rather evidence that the market is not free.
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