Kitchen Matches and Capitalism

Jerelyn and I went camping near Island Park, Idaho, over the Memorial Day weekend a couple of years ago. We always forget to pack something, and this trip it was matches.

I drove into town and found a three-pack of matches: three boxes of 300 large wooden kitchen matches per box for $3.69. That comes to $1.23 per box of 300, or about 3 matches for a penny.

It rained Sunday afternoon, and I got to thinking about what would be involved if I actually had to make my own matches instead of buying them at the store.

First, I’d need to find the right chemicals, and then I’d need to mix or dissolve them to form some kind of slurry or paste that would adhere to the match sticks, but that would dry to a hard, flammable solid. Then, I’d need to find some smooth, straight-grained softwood, cut it to the right length, and painstakingly split it into match sticks. Then, I’d need to dip the end of each stick into the first chemical (the red stuff) and suspend it vertically somehow until the chemical dried. Then, I’d need to dip the tip of each match into the second chemical (the white stuff) and let it dry. Then I’d need to make a box and pack them inside it so that I could carry them conveniently.

Would you be willing to do that 300 times for a buck? Could you support yourself selling your own matches? I know I couldn’t.

To me, that example captures the miracle of capitalism, because there is somebody out there who can support himself selling 300 matches for a buck. And not only does he support himself (or herself, as the case may be), but for that buck he also supports the lumberjack who cut down the tree to make the matchsticks. He supports the miner who dug the raw chemical ore out of the ground. He supports the chemist who purified and mixed the chemicals. He supports the paper-maker, the box-maker, and the printer whose combined efforts make the match box. He supports the truck driver who delivered the matches to the store, and he supports the store keeper who sold them to me. All those people AND THEIR FAMILIES are supported out of the $3.69 I paid for three boxes of strike-anywhere matches.

Maybe there’s also a match magnate smoking Cuban cigars in an opulent penthouse somewhere, too, but do you know what? I don’t care! Let the match magnate enjoy his cigars. Through his business acumen, he supported dozens of families, and he gave me a convenient, affordable way to light the pilot light on my water heater.

What about the price of the matches? Are the matches priced too high or too low? I think they’re probably priced just exactly right. Competition, market forces, labor forces, and customer demand have worked together to create a balance that leaves everybody more or less satisfied. I like the price enough to buy matches again next time I need them, the workers like their jobs enough that they don’t quit, and our magnate likes his profits enough that he doesn’t close the business and retire.

Should our government compel the magnate to either raise or lower the price of matches to generate some greater social good?

Heavens, no!

If we compelled him to raise the price in an effort to benefit his presumably underpaid workers, some other enterprising match entrepreneur would step in and undercut his prices and take all the business. Soon our magnate and all the families he supports would be out of business. Not good.

Maybe we should pass a law compelling all the matchmakers to raise their prices. Then, the Mexican or Chinese or Canadian matchmakers would take over the match market and the entire American match industry would go belly up. Even more “not good.”

What if we compelled our magnate to lower his prices to give me a more affordable match? Well, his young, blonde, 20-something trophy wife probably wouldn’t be willing to let him give up the penthouse, so he’d have to pay the lumberjack, the miner, the chemist, the box makers, and the truck drivers less. Soon, the lumberjack would quit working all day among the larch and the mighty Scotch Pines, and would start selling socks and underwear at J. C. Penney’s. Either his work force would dry up and move out of the industry, or he’d need to hire less-capable workers and start putting out a lower quality match. Once again, not good.

What if we compelled him to give up the penthouse and give the money to his workers? Well, pretty soon he would say, “Screw this noise,” and he and his trophy wife would close the match business and move to Cancun or los Cabos. Once again, all the families who had relied on his company would be out of work. No bueno.

What if we created a Federal Bureau of Match-Making Oversight and assigned a whole staff of bureaucrats and bean-counters to make sure that our magnate was being fair to everybody (assuming he isn’t being fair to everybody now)? Do you think bureaucrats and bean-counters could make matches better than a hard-headed businessman like our match magnate? Not bloody likely.

In my opinion, anything the government tries to do to regulate “fairness” will only bugger things up.

Capitalism works. The match-makers and the lumberjack have jobs that support their families, I have inexpensive matches, and the match magnate has his penthouse, cigars, and trophy wife.

So why do some people think there’s something wrong with American capitalism? As far as I can see, it works pretty darned well the way it is.

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