Conversation* with a Soviet shopper, 1988
Boy, this bread line sure is long.
I hope there’s still some left this afternoon when I get to the front.
I hope so, too. You never know with the government, though.
Yes, but if the government didn’t run the stores, we would all starve.
Really? Don’t you think that if there were a free market in food, entrepreneurs would find a way to sell it to you?
Well… possibly, but can you guarantee it? Food is too important to be left to chance like that.
Since food is so important to people, that means the food market would be very profitable.
That doesn’t guarantee me access to food. The problem right now is not that the government provides food, it’s that the farmers are having a bad year, and so there is only so much to go around. At least the government can figure out how to distribute it all fairly.
You don’t think that in a free market farmers would have more incentive to grow food, and food sellers would have more incentive than your local party official to make sure it gets to you?
That kind of makes sense. Sometimes I here rumors of corruption. But, can you guarantee that there would be a bread store near me? And a fruit store? And where would they get the food? From the government, of course! So there wouldn’t be any more to go around.
Maybe there would be stores that would sell all those things in one place, and different stores would compete for your business. I’m just speculating here, but perhaps farmers would sell to wholesalers and manufacturers, who would then sell to the grocery stores.
Now, that’s just crazy talk. All those layers of profit would make everything too expensive. Besides, how can you guarantee that in your “free market” grocery system, there would be such a store near me? If you can’t guarantee it, there’s too much risk.
So under the present system, you’re guaranteed groceries? What’s this line you’re in again?
But wouldn’t these grocery stores just cater to the rich party officials? Why should they bother carrying bread when they could make more money selling caviar and wine?
There are only so many people who can buy caviar all the time. There’s a lot more money to be made selling bread and milk to millions of people than caviar and wine to hundreds. Besides, the caviar and wine people sometimes need bread and milk, too.
You’re just speculating, again. Besides, why sell me good, fresh food when they can sell me old spoilt food, which they buy cheap? How can you guarantee the food would be safe?
If you heard of a store doing that, would you shop there again, or go to their competitor?
There you go again with your pie-in-the-sky competitor again. Even if I believe someone would build grocery stores, it would be way too inefficient to have two stores close enough together for me to have a choice. I would just have to take what I can get and hope I live.
As opposed to today…
And so what if there were two stores? They could make more money if they got together and set prices really high. Milk would cost two thousand rubles a jug, bread five hundred rubles a loaf, and we would all starve to death.
If the local market were priced too high, competitors would have an incentive to move in and sell at a lower price. The same if the local stores had poor service or a poor selection.
Hmmm… it’s starting to sound good. But, you still can’t guarantee me that the system would work like that, or that I would be better off under it?
Well, the incentives are there for people to provide you lots of quality groceries at low cost, unlike the government system where…
Stop. You’re still just speculating, and can’t guarantee it.
You’re right, I can’t guarantee it would work that way.
So I might be worse off?
That’s not likely, given how markets work. You might be much better off.
“Not likely” is not a guarantee. No thanks. Now, if you don’t mind my turn is nearly up. This day is really turning out well. I realize how lucky we are that the government provides our food, and if I hurry, I might have time to get some cheese before the cheese store runs out.
* Fictional. Duh.