If the Wuhan coronavirus has taught us anything, it’s that Americans are just not cut out for socialism. The main reason? The lines and empty shelves. They are inevitable in centrally planned economies, and we are getting a taste of it with the COVID-19 panic, but only a taste.
Some socialists, along with a handful of other left-leaning big-government types, rejoiced at the absence of toilet paper in the nation’s supermarkets. For instance, Justin Wolfers of the Brookings Institution in all seriousness declared that “capitalism fail[ed],” and “what we need right now is a government-backed Strategic Toilet Paper Reserve. That Reserve makes a promise that even if your local Costco ran out, you still have the right to buy 2 rolls per week from the government’s stockpile.”
But, of course, capitalism didn’t fail. The markets didn’t fail. They just aren’t instantaneous. Faced with an emergency that still feels largely theoretical, people panicked, and some started hoarding toilet paper. The shelves get restocked nightly, but hoarders keep coming back, so shelves empty out short-term. Next thing you know, socialists start screaming, “See! Lines under capitalism!”
If one takes a picture of the empty rows where toilet paper was once stored and puts them side by side with pictures of grocery stores in Venezuela or Cuba, sure, the images look similar. A comparison like this may prompt the conclusion that socialism is just like capitalism in a time of pandemic. But while the pictures may look alike, the feel at the stores is wholly different. I know a thing or two about it, because I grew up in the Soviet Union.
Americans Don’t Know How Good We Have It
Lines under socialism are caused by shortages. Centrally planned economies can deny food to segments of their population, like Joseph Stalin did during collectivization to build up the industry in the cities at the expense of the countryside. Even in happier times, socialist societies are simply unable to respond to consumer demand.
When people line up for scarce necessities, revolutions happen. The Russian bourgeois revolution of February 1917 (not to be confused with the Bolshevik coup later that year) was started by women in breadlines who were unable to feed their families. Those lines are intense spaces.
The Wuhan virus quarantine lines feel mellow. To be sure, I read a news story about a guy in Florida grabbing toilet paper out of someone’s hands. For the most part, however, Americans, even if they get grabby, still respect the finders-keepers rule. And most don’t get grabby.
I went to a neighborhood grocery store an hour or two after the San Francisco Bay Area announced shelter-in-place. The store was teeming with people, and I was sixth in line for the butcher. While I didn’t get the ground beef I wanted, I still bought two pounds of a different kind, as much as I would normally buy. Everyone else was filling their freezers with meat.
I picked up a few more items and got in line. With the extraordinary crowding and all registers open, I had to wait for only about 10 minutes.
The cashier was visibly tired, but courteous as usual. In the Soviet Union, however, employees of the state-run stores were purveyors of scarce goods. They routinely held back merchandise for family and friends, perhaps sold certain items above government price, and generally acted like our betters, getting haughty or obscene with customers.
Americans under threat of viruses endure none of that. In my neighborhood store, customers seemed amused by this new reality, wondering out loud if they were allowing proper social distance. They were not. I wanted to mention they should probably ditch their reusable bags, but I figured it would be a lame reason to start a riot in a food line. It’s not like I was fighting for the last sausage because otherwise my children would go hungry for God knows how long, as I would have been in the Soviet Union.
Thanks to Capitalism, Shelves Will Soon Be Full Again
There is hardly a sign of food insecurity in your average American grocery store under quarantine, only panic. People are getting grabby not because external reality is shaping their actions, but because they feel a certain way. Some people panic and fill their freezers with ground beef. Others keep calm and take little.
Yet even those who panic know there is plenty of food out there. We merely have a distribution hiccup due to a temporary spike in demand. Although most stores resupply overnight, hoarding resumes in the morning.
For most Americans, it means changes in routine and some inconveniences, but no hunger. One woman on my NextDoor page wondered about the length of the lines at Safeway. Another asked how bad crowd sizes were at Trader Joe’s in the morning because she be bringing her baby, making aisle navigation more difficult. If these people needed food or toilet paper badly, they’d drive to the supermarket at 7 a.m.
In other words, even when operating under stress, people in modern capitalist societies recognize the problem of distribution is not existential. That’s very much unlike living under socialism. If those consumers don’t get a spot, the item will run out. They grab what they can when they can.
Fortunately, modern capitalist refrigerators, even the chic metallic ones, have limited freezer capacity. No pantry can hold all toilet paper in the world. At some point, hoarders will get hoarded out, and goods will return to the shelves.
There’s just no point in creating a cumbersome bureaucracy to correct toilet paper distribution if the problem will sort itself out shortly. In fact, even if we set out to create that Strategic Toilet Paper Reserve, the market would correct the supply chains before the government could even hold a single meeting to establish the agency.