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When Capitalism Goes Too Far
A crisis of faith
Capitalism is the only way, Leslie. It moves our country forward. It’s what makes America great, and England okay, and France terrible.
The free market is a beautiful place. The idea that those who produce goods and services that others want are rewarded, while those who don’t are not, seems to me by far the best way to organize an economy. We’ve certainly seen what happens when government officials are allowed to call the shots.
I have devoted my professional life to preaching to teenagers and young twenty-somethings about the one-true-path of free market economics and the glory of worshipping at the altar of private enterprise. The road is dangerous; the temptations of subsidies, onerous regulation, and big government are all around us. Yet I’ve been at least mildly successful in this pursuit; at least until they leave my temple of capitalism and encounter false prophets throughout the media and public discourse. I have followed this path with unwavering fidelity.
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But every apologist and evangelist faces temptations of their own. Mine occurred when I saw this:
Kirkland Signature Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky.
This should not be. That bottle is an unfathomable corruption of all the things I hold dear. It has made me question my faith. Yes, the free market should be allowed to produce what consumers will buy. But what if we go too far?
For those not familiar with Scotch whisky, Islay is an island off the coast of Scotland that makes some of the most famous whisky known to man. To quote Ron Swanson again, Islay is “Where God’s chosen elixirs are distilled, barreled, and prepared for consumption.” I wrote about my pilgrimage to Islay here. The island seems impossible. How is it that on the edge of the earth, cut off from most of civilization except by ferry or plane, one small island produces many of the most famous brands of whisky? Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg are all within walking distance of each other on this mostly treeless, windswept isle. For centuries these small distilleries have used barley dried by peat to create an entire sub-genre of whisky, the best spirit man has invented. Many of the distilleries sit right on the ocean as if they are homes of oracles for penitents to trek to. Being on Islay evokes a sense of timelessness, of continuity with the universe.
Costco is one of the largest retailers in the United States. Along with hawking the wares of other companies, Costco has its own brand, Kirkland Signature. They operate over 800 warehouses around the globe, selling massive amounts of everything from rotisserie chicken to hot tubs. I wrote about the beauty of the Costco hot dog here. Costco is such a behemoth it is now the largest retail seller of wine in the world. Going to Costco on a Sunday afternoon is akin to Black Friday at Best Buy in the early 2000s. People fight viciously over discounted microwaves and tiny samples of chicken quesadillas. It is the retail equivalent of a no-holds-barred commodities exchange.
I love both Islay Whisky and Costco’s Kirkland products. But just as it’s weird to see your friends from high school meeting your friends from graduate school, some great things are not better together. A Kirkland-Islay combination is an abomination. A betrayal of principle. This is how Kirkland Islay Whisky makes me feel:
Of course, temptations are only temptations if they pique one’s interest. And Kirkland Islay Whisky certainly did. Could it be any good? I poured a dram and examined the product, keeping my distance as if the glass may have been filled with a flesh-eating acid. To my surprise, it looked just like Islay Whisky and smelled just like Islay Whisky. I nervously tried it.
It was good.
How could this be? How could a massive American warehouse chain founded in the 1980s outside of Seattle produce a reputable Islay whisky? What kind of black magic was this?
The internet to the rescue. As it turns out, Costco does not make Islay whisky. Islay whisky can only be made by one of the distilleries of Islay. Instead, Costco has a partnership with an unnamed Islay distillery. They buy a large quantity of whisky that normally would be bottled under a more famous, and expensive, label, and instead bottle them under the Kirkland banner. This has led to a wave of speculation over what distillery is producing the Kirkland Islay Whisky. Many of the Islay distilleries are small and could not produce as much as Costco would want, so that narrows it down considerably. My bet is on Caol Ila, although I have weak confidence in that prediction.
In the end, my faith remains true. I believe in the power of the free market. While part of me still blanches at Costco buying up an Islay distillery’s whisky, who am I to judge? It’s a mutually beneficial trade between two corporations that consumers are willing to buy. If that’s not the essence of capitalism, I don’t know what is.