The Miracle of the market

Gratitude to the Almighty is the theme of Thanksgiving, and has been ever since the pilgrims of Plymouth brought in their first good harvest. Today, in millions of homes across the nation, God will be thanked for many gifts for the feast on the table and the company of loved ones for health and good fortune in the year gone by, for peace at home in a time of war, for the calculable privilege of having been born of having become American.

But it probably won’t occur to too many of us to give thanks for the fact that the local supermarket had plenty of turkey for sale this week. Even the devout aren’t likely to thank God for airline schedules that made it possible for some of those loved ones to fly home for thanksgiving. Or for the arrival of Master and Commander, at the local movie theater in time for the holiday weekend or for that great cranberry apple pie in the food section of the newspaper.

Those things we take more or less for granted. It hardly takes a miracle to explain why grocery stores stock up on turkey before Thanksgiving or why Hollywood releases big movies in time for big holidays. That’s what they do. Where is God in that?

And yet, isn’t there something wondrous something almost inexplicable in the way your thanksgiving weekend is made possible by the skill and labor of vast numbers of total strangers?

To bring that turkey the dining room table, for examples required the efforts of thousands of people – the poultry farmers who raised the birds of course but also the feed distributors who supplied their nourishment and the truckers who brought it to the farm not to mention the architect who designed the hatchery, the workmen who built it, and the technicians who keep it running. The bird had to be slaughtered and de-feathered and inspected and transported and unloaded and wrapped and priced and displayed. The people whoa accomplished those tasks were supported in turn by armies of other people accomplishing other tasks – from refining the gasoline that fueled the trucks to manufacturing the plastic in which the material was packaged.

The activities of countless far flung men and women over the course of many months had to be intricately choreographed and precisely timed, so that when you showed up to buy a fresh Thanksgiving turkey, there would be one or more likely a few dozen waiting. The level of coordination that was required to pull it off is mind boggling. But what is even more mind boggling is this: No one coordinated it.

No turkey czar sat in a command post somewhere consulting a master plan and issuing orders, No one rode her on all those people forcing them to cooperate for your benefits. And yet they did cooperate when you arrived at the supermarket your turkey was there. You didn’t have to do anything but show up to buy it. If that isn’t a miracle, what should be we call it?

Adam smith called it the invisible hand – the mysterious power that leads innumerable people, each working for his own gain, to promote ends that benefit many. Out of the seeming chaos of millions of uncoordinated private transactions merges the spontaneous order of the market. Free human beings freely interact, and the result is an array of goods and services more immense than the human mind can comprehend. No dictator, no bureaucracy, no super computer plans it in advance. Indeed the more an economy is planned, the more it is plagued by shortages dislocation and failure.

The social order of freedom like the wealth and the progress it makes possible is an extraordinary gift from above. On this Thanksgiving Day and every day may be grateful.