Years before I ever shopped at Costco, I read this comment from a Costco customer: “This is the best place in the world. It’s like going to church on Sunday. You can’t get anything better than this. This is a religious experience.”
I was puzzled. Why such hyperbole? What kind of shopper’s high was this? l did not know what the shopper meant by “religious experience,” but I was curious.
I’m more comfortable with the word “spiritual” than “religious.” In a spiritual experience, one senses the bonds that unite all of humanity.
Spiritual experiences can happen, without fanfare, in even brief encounters like the one I had riding a bus from the rental car facility to the airport terminal. The bus was jam-packed and still a distance from the first terminal stop when a passenger began to push her way through the crowded aisle where I was standing. My ego could have flared with annoyance as she squeezed by and stepped on my toes. That day I was not annoyed at all. I had made an instantaneous, but unconscious, decision to make the encounter about her, not me. “Your flight must be on time,” I said lightheartedly.
She asked me where I was flying. Within seconds we were engaged in a conversation about a life decision the woman was making.
Instead of mutual annoyance, there was a harmony of interests. Two tired travelers paused to share a brief but palpable connection through their common humanity.
Costco Makes it About Us
I have started to shop at Costco; and now I better understand the shopper who experienced “church” at Costco. Shopping at Costco does facilitate a sort of spiritual experience. In their cavernous warehouses, abundantly stocked, the world of separate interests is far away.
When the threat of coercion is absent, a harmony of interests emerges naturally.
On a recent shopping trip, the atmosphere seemed charged with peaceful vibrancy. Shoppers of seemingly many ethnic backgrounds, rich to relatively poor, moved up and down the aisles finding the food, clothing, and electronics that they needed. This extraordinary diversity and harmony is a product of human cooperation, not social engineering.
The contentious and polarized world of politics and the heavy coercive hand of government seemed a galaxy away. I felt a sense of the deep bonds that connect all of humanity, a veritable brotherhood of man. Rather than feeling depleted and edgy at the end of our shopping trip, my wife and I felt peaceful and refreshed. At Costco, it is hard to believe there is anything is wrong with America.
Of course there is nothing unique about Costco; other companies also provide outstanding shopping experiences. In each case, the self-interest of the company creates a harmony of interests. The success of these companies lies in putting the needs of others first. What politicians promise and fail to deliver—putting you first—these companies routinely deliver.
When the threat of coercion is absent, a harmony of interests emerges naturally. We can only fulfill our separate interests by cooperating with others.
The Role of Standards
Standards play a hand in Costco’s success; the standards I am pointing to do not arise from coercive regulation by governments. Instead, the “regulation” consists of standards imposed on suppliers by Costco’s buyers. Suppliers don’t have a right to sell their goods through Costco until they earn vendor status.
The public, without knowing it, has complete sovereignty over Costco’s standards.
Costco sells many imported products. Each time we buy an imported product we raise the standard of living for Americans and foreigners. Perhaps, though, you are concerned about products made by slave labor, human trafficking, illegal child labor, or illegal prison labor? Perhaps you are concerned about health, safety and housing standards for the workers of the products you buy? Costco has these concerns, too. Costco has strict standards for their vendors, who are subject to a Costco audit. Gaining access to markets through Costco is so important to many companies, and the standards are so strict, that there are companies whose purpose is to be compliance experts for Costco vendors.
All of this is invisible to consumers. There is no need for Congress to debate “consumer protection” laws. No need for corporate lobbyists to feed campaign contributions to our “public servants” in exchange for special interest legislation. Yet the public, without knowing it, has complete sovereignty over Costco’s standards. Too strict, and Costco prices go up too high. Too lax, and shoppers may take their business elsewhere.
Costco has your back and the backs of people all over the globe who engage in peaceful commerce. As they facilitate the emergence of mankind’s natural harmony of interest, the leadership and employees at Costco, not government officials, are the real “public servants.”
The Universal Lesson
Jim Sinegal, CEO of Costco, offered this contrast between the giving and getting mindset: “The traditional retailer will say: ‘I’m selling this for $10. I wonder whether we can get $10.50 or $11.’ We say: ‘We’re selling this for $9. How do we get it down to $8?’” In his book Knowledge and Power, George Gilder observes:
“The unending contributions of entrepreneurs — forgoing consumption, exploring the marketplace, investing capital, creating products, building businesses, inventing jobs, accumulating inventories — all long before any return is received, all without any assurance of success, all in response to an imaginative sense of the needs of others, constitute a pattern of giving that dwarfs in extent and essential generosity any socialist scheme of redistribution.”
As Gilder writes, the sense of the needs of others comes first to entrepreneurs.
Before the fall of the Soviet Union, I heard students who grew up in the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe describe their dog-eat-dog existence. Survival was paramount and care and compassion for others outside of their family were in short supply. They were astounded by the generosity of Americans and their kindness towards strangers. Socialism realized the dog-eat-dog atmosphere that capitalism is accused of promoting. Socialism promised a brotherhood of man, but free-market capitalism delivered on it.
We become better people by engaging in commerceEvery time companies like Costco put the needs of others first, they are role models for us. The more a business makes it about others, by fulfilling the needs of others, the more successful the business will be. In our professional and personal life, the more we make it about others, the happier and more successful we will be.
There are some who engage life with socialist-style thinking; their first principle is I want more and I want to give less. They are continually concerned about what’s in it for me. On a professional level they are the colleagues who shirk and do little to develop their skills and capacity to create value for others. They gripe about the promotion they did not get. They blame others for their failures. On a personal level they are partners and friends who demand everything while giving almost nothing. When their relationships fail, someone else is always at fault.
Socialists are wrong. We are not sullied by commerce. Instead, we become better people by engaging in commerce. Firms like Costco show the way.
Originally posted and Cross-posted from Fee.
FEE has been a leading non-profit organization in teaching the principles of a free society since its founding in 1946, by Leonard E. Read. Today, Fee focuses on introducing freedom as a life philosophy to newcomers in the youth audience, striving to bring about a world in which the economic, ethical, and legal principles of a free society are familiar and credible to the rising generation.