All Commentary
Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Cheering on My Rival

At the salad bar and elsewhere.

If the market is a dog-eat-dog world, why do I sometimes find myself cheering for my supposed rival – at apparent odds with my own interests?

My workplace has a cafeteria with a wonderful salad bar. The process is simple: The customer chooses a salad bed from a tray of greens prepackaged in plastic containers and hands the selected container to the salad barista on the other side of the counter, who then walks with the customer down a row of options, adding whatever the customer desires.

The salad bar is popular, and its line long. So I have time to review the options and consider what others are selecting.

When it comes to food, we all have preferred tastes. Some tastes are mainstream, while others are a little more idiosyncratic. For example, I love roasted summer squash. Though it is not something I take the time to prepare at home, it is a real treat when I find it as an option at a restaurant.

Summer Squash Appears

One day, summer squash appeared on the salad bar – in a small serving dish, facing a long line of hungry customers. I estimated possible servings and counted those ahead of me. It was going to be tough — or so I thought.

As I moved through the line, I noticed no one was opting for the squash. No one. So my concern changed, and I no longer looked at my fellow man as a rival competing for a scarce supply. Instead, I looked at him as an ally who could ensure my desire for squash would be satisfied daily.

You see, the cafeteria is a business looking to satisfy the desires of its customers. Therefore, on a regular basis it swaps out the under-selected salad bar options in favor of something new –something that will entice consumers to return instead of heading out to one of the myriad restaurants and stores a short walk away.

If customers want an option, it stays. And the serving dish grows, as well.

But if customers walk right past, the option is gone.

Now you can see my dilemma. If no one else chooses squash today, I will enjoy it today, but it will not be served tomorrow. If, on the other hand, squash sells out, I may not enjoy it today, but it will be served tomorrow, and I will be able to enjoy it then and daily thereafter.

Take the Squash — Please!

So I silently suggested squash whenever a fellow customer moved in front of it. No one listened. And I enjoyed squash for one day only.

There is a belief that the market is a zero-sum game. It is either you or me. But the market, and the desire of entrepreneurs to turn a profit, show free exchange to be mutually beneficial, even when individual interests are at apparent odds.

In those instances where interests collide, the market does its best to satisfy the following day.

Certainly, in the continual short run, as entrepreneurs work to align production with ever-changing preferences, shortages and overages will occur. Nevertheless, there is a reason salad bars have carrots and not squash. It is not a result of central planning. It is the result of market forces directing entrepreneurs looking to turn a profit. (Some may suggest that the lack of roasted summer squash on the salad bar is a market failure – as if I am harmed by its absence. While it is true that I desire squash at lunch, the market provides me with other options, including roasting my own squash at home.)

If the demand for squash were sufficient, even rivalrous at times, squash would grace every salad bar. And I would be delighted.

So we need not fear a world governed by the free market. In such a world, where peaceful social interactions have replaced government interventions, even our rival is our ally.