The Middleman

     (This essay first appeared as an op-ed piece in the Rochester
Democrat and Chronicle in 1975, and was reprinted in my book, Vested
Interests, in 1982)

     Very often the newspapers report that the price of groceries is up
while the prices received by the farmers are down.  The explanation
(inevitably) is that "the middleman" is gobbling up the difference, and
more.  The implication then is that "something ought to be done" about
it -- price control, perhaps, or excess-profit taxes -- something, at any
rate, between jaw-boning and socialism.
     But the middleman is a complicated beast.  He is not just a cigar-
smoking fatso,with money-bags.  he is a truck driver, a truck, a railroad,
a health inspector, a marketing cooperative, a bank, a trader in soybean
futures, a grocery clerk and a paper-bag manufacturer, to name a few,
and don't forget the tax collector.
     Alas, the "middleman" in most people's minds, when the word is
bandied about, is the wholesale or retail merchant of food.  AŠ,
perhaps, with the owner of a Chicago stockyard somewhere dimly in the
     There is a long sequence of operations needed to extract a tender
ham for our table from what was a snorting pig way out in Iowa.  If
there is any waste, any useless payment in all this process, that waste is
not to be found in the merchandizing, which is in fact almost the only
part of the process that is not subsidized or protected in some way from
the free force of the marketplace.
     Anyone can play; there is no limitation on entering the food
trade.  in this it differs from law, medicine, teaching, taxi-driving,
bricklaying and liquor and eyeglass selling, for example -- things which
require either certification, apprenticeship, guild membership or higher
education, or licenses from governments, unions, or protective associa-
tions -- and all of which have the goal of "a fair return," which is to say
a rigged system of prices.
     Being a merchant is free and open to all; it is just the opposite of
a protected trade or profession.  It has no rigged pricing, no guaranteed
profits, no building codes, taxi medallions or sick pay.  If food retailing
were the rip-off its more mindless critics imply, it would, unlike the
protected and licensed and unionized professions and trades where this is
impossible, be invaded tomorrow by a thousand greedy prospectors. 
     Why haven't we seen this gold rush; why haven't all our street
corners filled up with new grocers coining money?  Liberty is dan-
gerous, that's why; few will risk it.
     The average hourly-rated employee of the new York subway gets
over $15,000 a year (The New York Times, April 6, 1975) protected by
an ironclad union contract making it illegal for anyone to compete with
him at a lower price.  Should such a person, once he is in solid, expose
himself again to the open market?  Yet he is more free to do that than
the retailer is to enter his world.
     The subway worker can become a "profiteer" tomorrow.  he need
not bid for a medallion, work for a diploma, beg for an apprenticeship,
claim minority status, pass a Civil Service exam, prove himself no felon,
win an election or join a union.  But he can be sure of one thing:  if he
does go into business and succeeds in making a living, he will be reviled
by many a decent citizen who ought rather to wonder what happened to
1965's 15-cent subway fare.
     I'll admit there is sometimes in the press a certain sympathy
expressed for the "momma and poppa store" (as if Wegman's and the
A&P were shamefully childless).  But this printed sympathy didn't do
much good on Joseph Avenue, or in the ghettos of Newark and Detroit
in the time of the long hot summers.  The poor folk rose up against just
those small merchants in their neighborhoods, the middlemen who (they
had been persuaded) were the instruments of their poverty.  What a
mistake!  They began with a ghetto and ended with a desert.  The "mi-
ddleman" was destroyed.  Hurrah.
     The subway worker well knows he is best advised to stay with the
subway.  What are profits to him?  Only wickedness.  So the subway has
ever-increasing fares and ever-fewer riders?  Then let the city, state and
federal governments subsidize the ever-growing deficit -- and pay his
inviolate wage -- while he complains of the price of food.
     I despair of ever seeing a reversal of this attitude towards trade. 
In the socialist world it is of course an article of faith, and in our world
it comes close.  Yet however hopelessly, I shall here ask one small favor
of the media and the public -- even, if you will, of the Rochester Demo-
crat and Chronicle:
     If the "middleman" is bound to be the object of derision, scorn,
contempt, anger and obloquy, can you at least have the decency to use
the word "middleperson" instead?