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Imagine That

This morning at a local coffee shop I found myself standing behind one of my former undergraduate students. He chided me, in a friendly way: “So, you probably think that the private sector could even supply local roads!”

“I do,” I replied.

He retorted “Come on! I can’t imagine it!”

“Well, the easy answer is that we have evidence that city streets actually have been built privately.” I recommended that he read the essay on the private-places of St. Louis, by historian David Beito. (It appears in The Voluntary City.) Economic history is a marvelous thing.

But there’s a deeper answer. I asked my former student “How much of what you see in this coffee shop could you imagine if it were not already in front of your face – familiar to you?”

The expression on his face grew puzzled.

I went on. “Suppose we ran into each other, not in 2004, but in 1854. Suppose I then told you that I think it’s possible that a machine will one day be developed that will use electricity to heat water and press it – with very high pressure – through ground-up coffee beans. And like the espresso maker, the grinding process itself will be powered by electricity delivered to the machines from thin wires stuck in the wall. And – get this! – the machines and the coffee-shop employees and customers will all be in a building that has its air temperature and humidity automatically controlled by yet another electrical machine. It can be 95f and 100% humidity outside while inside it’s a cool and comfortable 72f with low humidity.”

“Could you have imagined all that?” I asked.

Almost every one of the goods and services that are routine in modern, commercial society is the result of a long series of mostly small, individual, creative efforts to improve an existing situation – to build a better mousetrap, to find materials that make a more comfortable mattress, to engineer a marginally more reliable internal-combustion engine…..

And although now quotidian, almost none of these things could have been imagined by anyone even a few decades ago. Therefore, saying about some possibility “I can’t imagine it!” is not a sufficient argument against a claim that private, individual market-directed efforts can achieve some outcome that happens currently to be achieved principally by the state.

Wholesale creation is easy to imagine but shockingly difficult to carry out successfully. Creative spontaneous order is difficult to imagine, but its empirical track record is outstanding.


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