Everyday Millions of Strangers Work for You

by Don Boudreaux on August 29, 2013

in Complexity & Emergence

I’ve forgotten where I read the speculation that if Julius Caesar had been resurrected in 1795 and found himself walking with George Washington on the grounds of Mount Vernon and then with Lafayette in France, he would have regarded the late 18th century as reasonably fathomable.  Obviously, he would have noticed changes from his own time – including, of course, the widespread use of gun powder.  But the dominance of agriculture in the late 18th century would have made that era not terribly or radically unfamiliar to Caesar.

But then transport Caesar, Washington, and Lafayette to modern-day America and imagine their reactions: our world would be nearly unfathomable to all three of them.  Automobiles, jet planes, personal computers, television, space travel, electric lighting, air conditioning, telephony, refrigeration, indoor plumbing even for the poorest, anesthesia, antibiotics.  All new.  All marvelous.

In short, the differences created in the world over the span of 1,800 years from Caesar to Washington were much smaller than were the difference created over the span of the 200 years from Washington to today.

One way – there are many ways, of course – to highlight the marvelousness of our age is to note that, unlike for the multitudes of all of our pre-industrial ancestors, nearly everything that an ordinary denizen of our age consumes is something that

(1) that person did not personally make;

and, most spectacularly,

(2) no single person knows how to make – that it, it is something the construction and supply of which require the knowledge, skills, and efforts of literally millions of individuals.

Millie and Johan living, say, in 1000 A.D. likely grew their own food, produced their own clothing, and built their own hovel.  And if they didn’t personally – with their own hands – produce something that they consumed, they personally knew the person, or small group of people, who produced these things for them.  Relatively rare were the consumption items produced through a complex system of economic cooperation by large numbers of people most of whom were strangers to the peasants who consumed the items.

Not so today.  Nearly everything (and I’m tempted to drop the qualifier “nearly”) that an ordinary American or Spaniard or Australian consumes today is an item that is the result, and could only be the result, of the productive actions of millions of people, almost none of whom is known to the persons doing the consumption.

Look around you.  What do you consume that you make from scratch?  Nothing (or nearly nothing – perhaps you grew the tomato that you’ll chop up for your salad this evening [But from where did you get the tomato plant?]).  The clothes on your back, the chair that you’re sitting in, the bed that you’ll sleep in, the plumbing that helps make your home habitable, the food that you enjoy and the beer or wine that you wash it down with, the aspirin that you’ll swallow tomorrow morning because you drank one too many glasses…..  Nearly everything that you consume requires, for its production and its availability to you, the efforts of literally millions of people – almost none of whom you know or will ever know.

And perhaps even more marvelously, all of these things that you consume are affordable.  Even the quotidian pencil required for its production and supply millions of people, almost all of whom are strangers to you – and, don’t forget, also strangers to each other.  And yet you can buy a pencil for just a few cents!  (See also here.)

Ponder this astonishing fact: Each and every thing that we consume today in market societies is something that requires the coordinated efforts of millions of people, yet each of us is able to command possession and use of these things in exchange for only a small fraction of our work time.

Why aren’t more people blown away with the pure splendor and marvelousness of it all?!

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