Bozeman, Montana, a town with 30,000 people, contains a modest supermarket that offers valuable lessons. This store has tens of thousands of items of various sizes and brands, generic labels, and bulk products. Competition for the consumer's dollar occurs among this and other stores, brands within the store, and different products within individual brands.
Among the stores in Bozeman, as elsewhere, the shopkeepers compete in offering differing mixes of service and economy. Each grocer seeks to attract and satisfy consumers holding varying degrees of wealth, economic sophistication, nutritional knowledge, and body-type preference associated with differing food groups.
Competition responds to differing consumer preferences for health, economy, convenience, and vanity. In these stores we see people as diverse as ranchers who survived the dust bowls of the 1930s, refugees of the counter-culture of the 1960s who look like they are in a time warp, Park City blondes from Dallas summering at Big Sky, and neo-Spartan hedonists of all ages who bounce among Montana's ski slopes, white-water rivers, and mountain trails. We find them all in Albertson's at the University Mall.
Individuals representing all of these types shop cheek to jowl, sample ice cream and fajita strips in the aisles, and peacefully shuffle through the check-out lines at the supermarket located between the Bonanza Steak House and Yogi's Vegetarian Bakery. Stores and suppliers who fail to satisfy are passed by in favor of those who offer more attractive products.
In this setting offered by a free and open market system, each can satisfy his wants without imposing his preferences on others. In this manner, diversity, freedom of choice, and innovations are all encouraged. In this imperfect world, we can hardly ask for anything more. Yet, there is another huge advantage we normally take entirely for granted.
Surely the store in the mall provides a model for efficiently responding to diverse and rapidly changing preferences. But this efficiency, marvelous though it is, is only the minor miracle. The benefits of harmonious interaction fostered by market exchange in accordance with the rule of willing consent is the greater benefit.
Market exchange, subject to willing participation by fullfacultied individuals, permits people with radically differing views to peacefully coexist. In Bozeman there are a substantial number of hard-core vegetarians. They can shop peacefully and amicably with rancher and logger meat-eaters who consume vegetables only as a concession to their health.
Bozeman is also a national center for teetotaling SeventhDay Adventists. The supermarket accommodates their preference for nonalcoholic wine, and they shop harmoniously with those whose nightly ritual includes a bottle of French wine. This peaceful interaction occurs only because all transactions are voluntary. Imagine the uproar if the decisions to permit the selling of wine were determined in the political arena!
Nearly all analysts who have seriously studied the free market agree that the market promotes efficiency, diversity, and innovations which respond to consumers' changing preferences. Few, however, appreciate the degree to which private property rights and free exchange foster harmony and peace. This set of social arrangements renounces coercion as a means for making choices. These arrangements enable people who feel strongly about such issues as vegetarianism or prohibition to coexist constructively with people holding antithetical views.
What if the stocking of a grocery store were determined politically? Think of the fights between vegetarians and meateaters; the teetotalers and those who enjoy wine with dinner; the granola organics who argue against pesticides and the farmers who find chemicals useful; the populists who are strongly opposed to corporate agriculture and those with an interest in these firms; employed mothers who want the stores open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and fundamentalists who believe they should be closed on Sunday.
Fortunately, most of these decisions have been kept out of the political arena. People make decisions and exercise their consciences instead of imposing their preferences by using the force of law. Peace, progress, and efficiency are the predictable results of a free market economy.