… is from page 75 of the 2011 Definitive Edition (Ronald Hamowy, ed.) of F.A. Hayek’s 1960 volume, The Constitution of Liberty:
When we reflect how much knowledge possessed by other people is an essential condition for the successful pursuit of our individual aims, the magnitude of our ignorance of the circumstances on which the results of our action depend appears simply staggering.
DBx: My immediate goal is to post this blog entry. Of course, in doing so I am sharing an insight of someone (Hayek) who I never met but whose works the printing press and other marvels of modern publishing have long made readily available to me and, as a consequence, have greatly influenced my way of thinking. I have no idea who felled the tree from which the paper was made that enabled me to read these words from Hayek. Nor do I know who manufactured the ink used to imprint those words on this paper. The identities of the insurance brokers, publishing agents, lumber-mill accountants, font designer, and on and on and on of the many different individuals who made it possible for me to hold Hayek’s book in my hands are not only not part of my knowledge but would be practically beyond my (and anyone’s) ability to learn.
I’m typing now on a MacBook. The number of different individuals whose unique knowledge and efforts went into designing, building, and making my purchase of this laptop computer convenient and affordable is, conservatively estimated, in the hundreds of millions. I know none of these people, but each one of them has helped me to achieve one of my freely chosen goals (namely, to write and publish this blog post). My blog is hosted by a company named WordPress; I can’t begin to fathom just what that company does. I know no one who works there. My post will soon be available on the Internet, a source that will distribute Hayek’s and my words to many different desktop and laptop computers, to cell phones and to other electronic devices. Electricity is a necessary input for all of these operations to occur, yet I know not the first thing about generating electricity or about how generated electricity is practically distributed to my home and office, and far and wide to households and business places around the globe.
My interest in writing – and my ability to write – this blog post now is real only because I am well-fed, well-clothed, well-sheltered, and reasonably well-educated. I know the names of most of my teachers through the years. (I can still recall the name, if not the face, even of my kindergarten teacher from 1963-1964: Mrs. Pelligren.) But I don’t know who taught each of my teachers and who are the countless individuals who made it possible for each of my teachers to be wealthy enough to work as teachers and professors rather than have to work in subsistence agriculture.
Every thing that I do, every task that I complete, every goal that I accomplish is made possible only because literally millions of individuals, nearly all of whom are complete strangers to me and to each other, each acted on his or her unique knowledge and contributed his or her efforts to an economic process that makes it possible for me to have a reasonably good chance to achieve my goals. And, of course, what is true for me is true for every person living in modern society.
That this remarkable process of undesigned, unplanned, and largely unregulated-by-conscious-direction economic system operates with any success at all is itself cause for great wonder and thanks (and scientific investigation). But that it works as productively and as smoothly as it does is breathtakingly, stupendously, spectacularly amazing. No; it’s not ‘perfect’ (when perfection is defined by our imaginations), but it is nevertheless beyond-words awe-inspiring.
As I write this post I’m enjoying a glass of California chardonnay. This delicious wine is yet another of the many things that made my rather normal (for a modern American) day not only enjoyable but one filled with the achievement of many of my goals. Yet this seemingly simple glass of wine, too, was brought to me only by the cooperative efforts of legions of strangers whom I do not know. And so to them – and to everyone else who contributes his and her productive efforts to the great and unsung system of global commerce that makes our unbelievably rich modern lives possible – I raise a glass, and my toast to you all is “Peace and Free Trade.”