Don Boudreaux: Government supermarkets?

Don Boudreaux reframes the school choice debate in terms of food...

25 April 2011

Editor, The Wall Street Journal
1211 6th Ave.
New York, NY 10036

Dear Editor:

Randi Weingarten insists that "markets aren't the education solution" (April 25). Let's see. Suppose groceries were supplied in same way that K-12 education is supplied.

Property owners would pay taxes on their properties. Huge chunks of these tax receipts would be spent by government officials on building and operating supermarkets. Each household would be assigned to a particular supermarket, from which it would get its weekly allotment of groceries for "free." (Department of Supermarket officials would determine the quantities and kinds of groceries that families of different types are entitled to receive.) Each family would be allowed to patronize only that "public" supermarket to which it is assigned.

Residents of wealthier counties would obviously have better-stocked supermarkets than would residents of poorer counties. Indeed, the quality of public supermarkets would play a major role in determining people's choices of neighborhoods in which to live. And, thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court decision, families would be free to shop at private supermarkets that charge directly for the groceries they offer. Private-supermarket families, however, would get no discounts on their property-tax bills.

When the quality of supermarkets becomes widely recognized to be dismal, calls for “supermarket choice” would be rejected by a coalition of "Progressives" and public-supermarket workers; "supermarket choice" would be ridiculed as a right-wing ploy to deny ordinary families the ability to eat. Such choice, it would be alleged, drains resources from public supermarkets whose (admittedly) poor performance testifies to the fact that these supermarkets are underfunded.

The handful of radicals who call for total separation between supermarket and state would be accused by nearly everyone as being devils who are indifferent to the malnutrition and starvation that would sweep the land if government does not at least distribute vouchers for shopping at supermarkets.

Does anyone believe that such a system for supplying groceries would work well? Surely not. So why do so many people continue to presume that government-supplied schooling (especially the way it is currently funded and supplied) is superior to market-supplied schooling?


Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030

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