Why liberals (like me) should love the free market

A few months ago while watching one of those old Brat Pack teen comedies, I had what I can only describe as a mystical revelation: What if my long years of suffering as a clueless, uncool social outcast in high school and college were simply part of God’s plan to save me from being photographed in trendy ‘80s clothes? He does work in mysterious ways, after all. It made sense, and I decided right then to run with it.

Of course, many people who have experienced the pain of being different have later come to embrace whatever “oddity” had earlier set them apart. I’m proud of my years as an unrepentant Dungeons & Dragons geek. And by “proud” I mean “slightly less ashamed than I probably should be.”

Anyway, last week, Cheryl (my wonderful, endearingly off-kilter, and ever-so-subtly nerdy wife) and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary at the Mad City Vegan Fest. We’re both long-time vegetarians and relatively new vegans. I went vegan about three years ago and have been a strict vegetarian for almost 20 years. Cheryl has been a vegan for a slightly shorter time than I, but went vegetarian ages ago. Sometimes, on the rare occasions when I encounter hostility or outright derision in response to my vegan diet, it feels like the ‘80s all over again, but I’ve fully embraced – and enjoyed – this choice, and so has Cheryl.

We understand that we’re a minority subset of an already small minority, and that’s fine with us. Neither of us is particularly interested in getting in people’s faces and screaming at them about veganism. But we are both serious about it, and although eating vegan is far, far easier than either of us had ever anticipated, navigating a world that is largely built around the appetites of non-vegetarians and non-vegans can sometimes be challenging.

So we (or at least I) drove to Vegan Fest feeling just a small measure of trepidation. While the event’s organizers seemed to have done their due diligence when it came to publicity and advertising, in the back of my mind, I half expected to be one of seven or eight people drifting listlessly around the nearly empty Goodman Community Center gobbling up more ersatz meats and dairy substitutes than is healthy for one person – just to make up for the hundreds of people who decided not to show up.

Boy, was I wrong. The place was packed, and the atmosphere was electric. I went from worrying about low turnout to worrying that The Dandelion Food Cart, whose food I had my eye on, would be tapped out before I got to the front of the long line leading there. Indeed, it’s clear that the event will have to be expanded next year.

So why would so many people show up for an event featuring sprouts and lettuce? The answer? Sprouts and lettuce have very little to do with it, thanks (surprise, surprise) to the free market. The food at Vegan Fest was delicious and extremely satisfying, and I’m not saying that simply because I have to eat this stuff.

Now, in most people’s minds, the vegan diet is associated predominantly with liberals, and that’s a fair assessment. As a result, when people think of the (admittedly slow) rise of veganism, they probably credit (or blame, depending on who they are) vegan activists, but they should give at least as much credit to entrepreneurs.

When it comes to taking risks and identifying opportunities, it doesn’t get much more entrepreneurial than getting into the vegan game. When I first went vegetarian 20 years ago, the veggie landscape was a wasteland. You could find veggie burgers and similar items at specialty stores, but the quality and variety left something to be desired. Now it’s nearly impossible to go to any grocery store without seeing a satisfying array of veggie burgers, veggie dogs, and vegetarian entrees.

People love to throw the term “socialist” around these days as a sort of blanket epithet for liberals. I always have to chuckle at that. My dictionary defines socialism as “any of the various theories or systems of the ownership and operation of the means of production by society or the community rather than private individuals.”

More than anyone else, I think, I would hate living in a truly socialistic country. As a vegan, and someone who appreciates variety in life, I can hardly imagine anything worse. Under a planned economy, I’d be stuck eating borscht and corn husks and – if I got really, really desperate – the parts of the pig that were left over after everyone else was finished with it.

The companies that long ago took a risk and more recently helped make Mad City Vegan Fest a success – including The Dandelion Food Cart, The Green Owl Cafe, Field Roast, Upton’s Naturals, and Bloom Bake Shop – likely wouldn’t exist under socialism. These companies, and others that offer vegan and vegetarian fare, have blossomed. Who could have guessed it?

Now, I’m not in favor of a completely unfettered free market. Few people other than pure libertarians or the magical forest elves inside Michele Bachmann’s head who told her to run for president truly are. Just as free speech can never be 100% free, the free market should never be completely unregulated.

But being a dedicated, leftwing, bleeding-heart vegan, I’m sure glad the free market is there for oddballs like me.

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