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Living Harmoniously and Inharmoniously with Nature

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In my latest column for AIER, I argue that human beings today live in unprecedented harmony with the non-human natural world – but also in increasing disharmony with the nature of the market order that is responsible for our modern standard of living [2]. A slice:

There is, however, one part of nature with which we today do live in a great deal of conflict – namely, the nature of modern society. A central feature of this society is each individual’s dependence on the knowledge and productive efforts of literally billions of strangers.

Every moment of every day every one of us in the modern world enjoys some good, service, or experience that is made possible only because countless strangers perform a complex series of astonishingly well-coordinated actions that have among their final results the goods, services, and experiences that are commonplace in modern life. From the alarm on your smartphone that awakens you in the morning, through the coffee and croissant that you enjoy for breakfast and the computer or other power tools that you use to work, to the hard shingled roof over your bedroom and the soft machine-woven sheets on which you fall asleep at night, you consume, each and every day of your life, a steady stream of the fruits of the labors of billions of strangers.

The unleashing and coordination of all this amazing productive effort is achieved only within free, entrepreneurial markets. Prices, profits, and losses emerge when buyers are largely free to spend their money as they choose on goods and services offered by entrepreneurs who are largely free to enter and leave different lines of production. These prices, profits, and losses daily guide these economic processes. The result is our fabulously prosperous modern world.

And while this unfathomably complex series of coordinated actions of billions of individuals from around the world isn’t without occasional glitches, testimony to the fact that it works smoothly and reliably is in your own massive material prosperity combined with your obliviousness to the nature of the market order that makes your prosperity possible.

Such obliviousness unfortunately leaves the globe-spanning market order open to attack. Too many people take its fruits for granted or imagine that its operations are far simpler than these really are. The results of this ignorance of the nature of a market economy can be cataclysmic.

I believe that we would have had no Covid-19 lockdowns if more people understood the complexity of the market order and more fully appreciated the magnitude of the material prosperity that this order makes possible. These lockdowns, and the deranged fears that fuel them, indiscriminately demolish countless unseen nodes of commercial interactions. Gubernatorial diktats obliterate business plans. Mayoral commands destroy businesses overnight. Government lockdown orders – and ongoing threats of such – severely obstruct the ability of entrepreneurs to innovate and of suppliers to compete to meet the needs of consumers. Unwarranted media and political hysteria over Covid severs many of the cords that form the complex web of supply relationships that are necessary for putting bread on our tables and roofs over our heads.

The market is no fragile flower. It can and does take a great deal of abuse without quitting on us. But nor is the market indestructible. By commanding people to steer clear of many commercial interactions – especially as these arbitrary commands morph from ones that were promised to last only a few weeks into ones that, we’re now told, might last for several more months – governments around the world are annihilating the global economy.

No widespread event in my lifetime comes close to the Covid lockdowns as an instance in which we human beings have so ignorantly and arrogantly chosen to live not merely inharmoniously with nature but in direct and hostile opposition to it. The final price we pay for this folly will be astronomical.

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