Wednesday, 4 March 2009

The daily miracles of the market

This from Robert Higgs:
I am writing this post on Sunday evening, and I have just finished my supper. For dessert, I had a fresh nectarine with vanilla ice cream. It was heavenly.


The one I consumed this evening came close to perfection: It had just recently ripened fully and had gorgeous colors, inside and outside; its flesh was firm, yet juicy, very sweet, but with enough fruity tanginess that its taste still lingers lovingly on my tongue.

As I enjoyed this heaven-sent delight, I thought to myself: This fruit was grown in Chile. Here I sit, in my home in southeast Louisiana, in a rural area, fifty miles from the nearest big city. Yet I am enjoying the fruit (literally in this case) of someone’s labors in a land many thousands of miles away. It’s not the first time I’ve done so, either, and I fully expect to repeat this experience many times in the future, should fortune decree that my life continue. Indeed, this kind of consumption is a daily occurrence for me, as it is for nearly everyone else in this country.

Yet, how often do we pause to reflect on the near-miraculousness of this manner of living? Fresh fruits delivered in the middle of winter even to remote places all over this country! Who arranges this vast and complex distribution so successfully? How is it even possible to organize all the people who had to cooperate peacefully in order to make my splendid dessert possible. I have no idea who planted the fruit trees, tended them for years until they matured, picked the fruit, packaged and transported it through successive stages until it was ultimately placed on display in the grocery store I patronize. Of course, every one of these unknown people had to have the cooperation, directly or indirectly, of thousands of others, who manufactured the equipment and materials they used, produced the necessary fuels and lubricants, kept the accounts, insured the properties, arranged the payments, and so on and on and on.

1 comment:

matt b said...

I often have a similar experience in supermarkets. I always shop with a plastic handbasket and maybe buy 10-12 things on an average visit.

When I am doing this, I sometimes get to thinking about how incredibly cheap supermarket stuff is when I compare a) the amount of time I have to work to produce the money required to buy those goods (lets says its 20 minutes) with the amount of time I would have to work to produce those 12 goods.

And I mean really produce them. Even with the enormous advantage of knowing the end goal, producing just 12 goods myself would, I think, take centuries of my labour.

I mean produce all the compnents of the product (ignoring spoilage), all the preservatives, flavourings, colouring, and so on. I'd have to learn how to mix and then cook those ingredients in just the right way. To do that I would have to build an oven, work out how to fuel it, and then cook the foods in just the right way.

I would have to package the products. In many cases that would mean discovering how to make plastics, finding the raw materials for it, learning how to paint it, stick it all together.

Viewed this way, the collection of ideas embodied in an average supermarket is utterly stupendous, and the difference between the 20 minutes of labour it takes me to buy a basket of goods and the centuries it would take me to make those goods myself is the extraordinary power of the division of labour and accumulated capital.

A pre-requisite to be anti-markets is surely to fail to understand this.