Let the Market Do Its Work

The Square Has Room for Both Revolution Books and a McDonald's or Two

Iam going to say something that will shock many people living in the city of Cambridge: the United States is a capitalist country. In a capitalist system the basic questions of economics are answered, for the most part, by the market. These questions are what, how and for whom to produce goods and services. Capitalism guarantees that all stores, to earn a profit, must meet the demand of some consumers. However, each store will not necessarily sell a good or service that everyone in the community demands.

For me, a good example of this is Revolution Books on Mass Ave. Revolution Books is our local vendor for leftist propaganda; the store's wide variety ranges from Mao's "Little Red Book" to the more contemporary "Phony Communism is Dead...Long Live Real Communism!" I have never purchased anything at Revolution Books; thus, it has never directly benefited me. If it were to go out of business I would not cry a river.

The critical point, however, is that Revolution Books has a right to operate. While I do not frequent the store, other people do, and they are glad it is there. The store makes a profit, and consumers come out happy with their newly-bought radical dogma.

If the store did not meet a demand for a good (radical dogma), it would not make a profit and would be forced to shut down. If Revolution Books tried to expand to every corner in Cambridge, there would be a surplus of radical dogma and the stores would close until the optimal level of shops existed (presumably, one).

Anyone who has taken Ec 10, bought something at a store or learned to spell the word "economics" should understand this theory. But there is a small minority of people who don't, and many of them are in the Harvard Square Defense Fund.


You may want to know specifically what this noble-sounding group is "defending." They claim to be defending the integrity--the "feel"--of the Square, protecting it from destruction by a wave of cheap fast-food establishments. In the words of Gladys "Pebble" Gifford, the group's president, "I just don't want to see a Starbucks on every corner of every street."

On the surface, this argument has a lot of appeal. People generally like Harvard Square, and do not want to see it razed to build a strip mall. However, within guidelines, franchise operations have the right to exist in the Square. Letting chain stores operate does not have to mean letting in huge McDonald's arches; such signs can be prohibited by the city, as can other ornamentation the community deems offensive.

The Defense Fund seems to paternalistically believe that "proletariat" shops are not suitable for the Square--in other words, these people don't want to eat fast food, so they want to stop you from doing so. The city also subscribes to this condescending logic, as a fast-food establishment hoping to set up shop in the Square must get a special permit for a restaurant. To get this permit, the establishment must prove that there is a "need" for the restaurant in the community.

What kind of nonsense is this? If the need didn't exist for the McDonalds, it would not be able to stay in business in the Square. The elitists who support such permits realize the need does exist for these shops and want to block that need from being fulfilled. In other words, they want to make a lot of people worse off.

The clientele of fast-food restaurants largely consists of students, youth and lower income workers--people who generally have little discretionary income and cannot afford fancy meals at the sit-down restaurants that fill the Square. When the fast-food restaurants they would like to visit are barred, these people must give up eating out as often or cut back on other purchases. In this way, the fight over the Square is a typical class struggle: a rich minority suppressing the poor majority.

What about Gifford's deep-seated fear of a Starbucks on every corner? As I have noted, in a capitalist system there will be as many Starbucks as--and no more than--the market will allow. And what is she afraid of, anyway? Simply that if the state planning boards fail to keep out fast food, there will be stores in the Square she (to hell with everyone else!) doesn't want to frequent.

I believe the market must be regulated; hey, that's why I am a Democrat. But one must stop and consider when regulation (such as ordinances on the size of signs) turns into state planning. The market, not city bureaucrats, ought to decide what restaurants operate in the square.

Where is the outrage? If Harvard economics professors believe their own words, they ought to promote capitalism in their own backyard. Let's see some letters come in. Let's hear some outrage. Consumers of Cambridge, unite! All you have to lose is your chains.

James Allen Johnson '00, a Crimson editor, is an economics concentrator and a resident of Adams House.

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