All Commentary
Wednesday, April 1, 1992

The Search for a Souvenir Spoon

Dwight R. Lee is the Ramsey Professor of Economics at the University of Georgia, Athens.

My mother collects souvenir spoons, and I have found that airports are the easiest place to buy them. However, when I recently flew into Sheremeteva, Moscow’s international airport, one of the first things I noticed after clearing customs was the lack of shops. The traveler who wants a convenient souvenir is out of luck.

Finding no souvenir spoons at the airport, I assumed they would be available at my downtown hotel. I was wrong. There was only one small shop in the hotel, containing little more than matrioshka dolls, lacquered boxes, and a few fur hats. Even if souvenir spoons had been available, buying one wouldn’t have been easy. The shop was rarely open, and then attended by a clerk more interested in reading her paper than taking my money.

A short walk to GUM, Russia’s largest department store, also was unproductive. There were no advertisements or fancy displays aimed at enticing customers to spend their money. Of course, I was prepared to buy a souvenir spoon without such inducements, but despite a seemingly endless succession of shops, I found none. Indeed, little merchandise of any kind could be seen. The long lines of women (few shoppers were men) obscured whatever merchandise was available. Figuring that these women weren’t queueing up for souvenir spoons, I didn’t join them.

Near my hotel I came across some street vendors who, recognizing me as an American, were eager to sell me souvenirs—provided I paid U.S. dollars. Unfortunately, their selection was limited. Deciding that a Red Army battle helmet or a cheap T-shirt proclaiming the wearer to be a KGB agent would not make a flattering addition to my mother’s wardrobe, I continued my search for a souvenir spoon.

I was able to be philosophical about my search by considering the plight of Russian citizens, who depend on those with little interest in their money for everything they want to buy. The long lines of shoppers waiting for surly service and pitiful products are only the most obvious examples of the lack of commercial attention that Americans have the luxury of complaining about.

We Americans, in fact, take a lot for granted. When it rains, we turn on our windshield wipers with the same ease that we turn the dial of our radio to avoid a commercial. Russians lucky enough to have a car, especially one with a radio, don’t have to worry about commercials. But when it starts raining, many drivers must stop their cars, take their wiper blades from the glove compartment, climb out into the pouring rain, and attach them so they can continue their trip. Finding someone willing to sell wiper blades is a serious challenge for motorists, so wiper blades left on the windshield of one car are likely to find their way into the glove compartment of another.

We Americans are accustomed to bright lights. Almost nothing is brightly lit in Russian stores, restaurants, hotels, and offices. There are generally plenty of light bulbs, but most of them are burned out. In many cases these burned-out bulbs were brought in by employees and substituted for those that work. This is a tempting way for citizens to replace their burned-out bulbs at home, since buying working light bulbs is only slightly easier than buying a souvenir spoon.

If Russians were surrounded by people eager for their money, then, like Americans, they would be surrounded by light bulbs, wiper blades, and souvenir spoons, not to mention thousands of other products they do without. The desire for money motivates the production of goods, and the availability of goods, in turn, creates the desire for money. Bringing the Russian economy into the reinforcing cycle of productive activity and the aggressive pursuit of money requires freedom, including the freedom to own, sell, and profit from private property.

The Uses of Freedom

The Russians’ quest for freedom—economic as well as political—is fueling the revolution that is sweeping aside obstacles such as the Communist Party and the forced union of the Soviet republics. As the citizens of what has been the Soviet Union secure their freedom, they will begin using it in a variety of ways to improve their lives. One of those ways will be to develop increasingly creative means to sell goods and services.

Some day soon I hope the Russian people will be fortunate enough to benefit from the “crass commercialism” Americans love to complain about. Then I will be able to buy my mother a souvenir spoon at the airport or hotel in Moscow.

  • Dwight R. Lee is the O’Neil Professor of Global Markets and Freedom in the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University.