Sundays have become “clean-out-the-fridge” days in the Carden house, which leads to some interesting culinary experiments. Yesterday, I jerry-rigged something resembling a gyro using leftovers from a couple of meals: hummus, homemade pita bread, red onions, feta cheese, pot roast, and Cholula Chili Lime sauce. The end product was pretty good, if I say so myself (and granted, these were very small changes in what would have been a standard Mediterranean dish). A few weeks ago, it was shells-and-cheese with a spoonful of Sriracha chili garlic sauce mixed in.
These little experiments give me an opportunity to reflect on freedom, social cooperation, and experimentation. As Leonard E. Read discussed in his classic essay I, Pencil, no single person on Earth knows how to make something as simple as a pencil. Similarly, beginning from the elements of the Earth, I don’t know how to make the lunch I had yesterday or the peanut butter and jelly sandwich I just finished. Trying to feed myself without access to the extended order of social cooperation would be a recipe for abject poverty if not early death. Daily, I am able to harness the expertise of millions upon millions of strangers, each of whom seeks only to achieve his or her own goals but in the process is led by an invisible hand to help me achieve mine.
Market institutions enable people to look for solutions to problems. One of the perceived failings of economics is that it can’t tell everyone in advance how (or whether) a particular program or scheme will work because the information is generated by the market process itself (here’s James Buchanan with more). As I discussed in this article, the market is a process of trial and error in which profits and losses tell people whether they are choosing wisely or choosing poorly. Voluntary cooperation with all it entails enables a process of social learning that can’t take place when there is central planning or involuntary cooperation (see Emily Chamlee-Wright’s work for more).
It astounds me to think about how much richer my own life is because I have access to market institutions, distorted and hampered though they might be. It saddens me to think about how many people’s lives are impoverished because they don’t have access to market institutions. It boggles my mind–and fills me with hope–when I think about what people could accomplish through voluntary cooperation if only they were allowed to do so.
FTC-mandated disclosure: I received no valuable consideration from the companies or scholars mentioned in this blog post.