Those of us who live in largely market-based economies can too easily take for granted what we might call the everyday marvels of the market. We find ourselves with things that would have amazed and mystified people just a couple of generations ago. If we think of the marvels the market delivers, we normally think of technology, but fancy technology is hardly the only everyday marvel, or even the most important.
Even the most basic of human wants reveals these marvels. A simple trip through the grocery store in even the smallest of towns reveals a variety of fruits and vegetables that goes far beyond what was there even a generation ago in anywhere but the fanciest supermarkets in wealthy neighborhoods. Items I never even heard of as a child are commonplace in rural America. More miraculous is that these items are available in the dead of winter, having traveled in some cases thousands of miles to get there. Few of our ancestors, even 60 or 70 years ago, would have had access to that variety in the middle of winter.
Of course Leonard Read’s “I, Pencil” (and the marvelous video version recently released by the Competitive Enterprise Institute) points to the marvel of the undesigned order of the marketplace, and the power of the story comes from the fact that the object of the narrative is so commonplace.
Perhaps it’s because so many of these marvels are in the form of everyday objects that it is so easy for people to overlook how amazing they are. The processes that make these marvels possible result from step-by-step learning in the marketplace. But just as historians tend to focus on larger-than-life figures — unfortunately, mostly politicians and warmongers — so do we tend to see economic progress in the form of the big technological advances, whether it’s space flight or the latest advance in computers. In reality, both history and economic progress are the story of accumulating small changes — everyday marvels that add up to a transformation of human society.
I spent part of a meeting earlier this week seeing a demonstration of a new student desk that my university is buying for a number of classrooms. In some ways the classroom desk is a simple bit of technology, and if one were looking only at the big picture, classroom desks might not seem to have changed much over time. However, this desk is a marvel of engineering and, more important, consumer-friendliness. After all, humans and their classroom needs have changed.
The desk part of this chair-desk combo is much bigger than older ones, which makes sense since it now has to hold laptops and other electronic devices. The chair is bigger too, reflecting the larger size of the average college student. The desk connects to the chair with a metal pipe that enables the desk to rotate easily from right to left. The desk can also be rotated behind the chair and used as a shelf. The whole thing is on casters so that it can be moved easily around the classroom; and when the desk is joined with three others, they make a 2×2 table for four. The unit also has two cup holders on either side, much like seats in a car, and the chair comes in an upholstered version. It has everything but seat warmers!
This desk is not a great leap forward in technology. It’s made with materials that have been around for a long time. Compared to earlier desks, it simply has a few changed features that better serve the needs of current users. But those “simple changes” illustrate another everyday marvel we overlook too easily: the market provides people with the knowledge and incentives to discover and implement the small changes that add up to everyday marvels.
And those everyday marvels indeed add up. As the economic historian Deirdre McCloskey argues, on the low end humanity is 119 times wealthier today than it was 200 years ago. Humanity on average consumes 8.5 times as much and lives twice as many years as adults. Plus, there are seven times as many of us. Multiply that through and we have 119 times more adult-years of consumption than 200 years ago. That’s not 119 percent, but a factor of 119, or an increase of 11,800 percent. That’s what lots of little bits of progress can add up to.
So don’t overlook the everyday marvels and the little bits of progress that we can too easily take for granted. They are the real power of the market, and when you add them all up, you get the amazing story of human progress.