G.K. Chesterton once observed that “we are perishing for a want of wonder, but not for a want of wonders.”
It is a simple and profound observation of the human condition. I first read this sentence in Leonard E. Read’s brilliant essay, “I, Pencil,” which provides an essential and fascinating defense of a free market by breaking down the logistical marvels required to bring into existence the simplest of things. (Milton Friedman provides a good summation in this short video.)
There was a time when I had never considered all of what goes into the production of what is now an 8-cent pencil. How many industrial miracles occur as a means to produce that simple pencil? How many individuals are employed, in entirely separate industries, subsisting on mining the ore and extracting the metals used to produce the machinery that harvests the timber, later sawn to appropriate sizes by equally complex machinery? What could the common man know about the intricate details of what goes into the extraction or assembling of the components used to make its simple eraser, the painted and indented lettering on one side, or the brass casing that houses the eraser, or the yellow lacquer, or the “lead,” which is not lead, but an amalgam of compressed graphite shaped into small cylinders and laid between tightly conjoined pieces of wood?
The pencil is a microcosm for a larger observation that I was incapable of understanding as a child. Millions of adults still just can’t seem to grasp that such simple things are the wonders created by humanity, and it is only a free market comprising individuals — not central planning by powerful government officials who lack the imagination of individuals motivated by profit — that can produce such things at such low costs, thereby making them so commonplace in our lives that we don’t recognize how miraculous they are.
Such wonders are all around us. A common example I often use in conversation with young people is a pizza that you might order for ten dollars on a weekend. The owner of the pizza store, who might be making a good living assembling and delivering his product, did not plant or thresh the wheat needed to mill the grains into the flour used to make the dough, nor did he raise the cows that are milked to produce the cheese or the pigs needed to produce the pepperoni, nor did he cultivate the tomatoes used in the sauce. No, the owner of the pizza store purchased all of these things from others, all of whom have their own ambitions and profit motives and employ thousands of individuals who likewise feed their families by applying their trades in order to provide us that $10 pizza that can feed any family of four or hungry college kids, indiscriminately, for that agreed upon price.
But they are marvels that we do not easily see, and that we often disregard, due to the deficiency in human nature that Chesterton identified. Winston Churchill may have even more closely identified why we don’t consider these things wonders, observing, in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples:
No one can understand history without continually relating the long periods which are constantly mentioned to the period of our own short lives. Five years is a lot. Twenty years is the horizon for most people. Fifty years is antiquity. To understand how the impact of destiny fell upon any generation of men one must first imagine their position and then apply the time-scale of their own lives.
As such, ignoring the reason why “destiny fell upon” us in such a way that we live among such marvels without an appreciation for them may be the human condition, but it should become more difficult as we grow older.
In my youth, I could have never imagined what we have today. To me, a “computer” was a fancy Apple II on which I played Oregon Trail in “computer lab” a couple of times a month. Even as children, we recognized that computers would be important in the future, but we had no idea that things would play out to such an extent that all the information in the world could be readily available at my fingertips by tapping a sequence of letters in my phone, which, miraculously, is not tied to my wall with a curled rubber cord (the wires within being marvel of communication that I also never recognized as a child), but could now be utilized via satellite while sitting at the lake fishing with my children.
All of that happened not because government overseers wished it into existence. “Destiny fell upon” us in such a way that we enjoy the wonders of today only because human beings were free to continually innovate and seek a profit for having done so. Economies of scale, such as described above, where pencils, pizzas, and information and communication devices are better and more readily accessible today than ever before, exist only because countless individuals have been able to cultivate their own imaginative ambition for a profit. When the government demands that the arrangement that gave us the wonders around us should be smothered because some have profited too much, the arrangement that created those wonders becomes unquestionably compromised.
Any government attempt to attack the profit motive among individuals is an attack on the very principle of individual liberty that has given us all the innovations that we now enjoy.
We are experiencing myriad attacks against that principle, and from many angles. Perhaps most prominently, these calls are coming from House newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who believes firmly that she and other bureaucrats should be in charge of directing resources and capital in our economy by seizing wealth from those who have too much of it and redistributing it to others as they see fit.
This is a woman who was flummoxed at the sound made from her garbage disposal in her new “bougie” (a slang term that derives from “bourgeois — meaning middle/upper class, traditionally despised by communists,” according to Joseph Curl at the Washington Times) apartment in Washington. “Like, what is a garbage disposal really for?” she asks. “More importantly, why is it so loud and yelling at me?”
When on recess from congressional duties recently, she was more happily surprised at the leafy plants that had grown in her community garden slot. “Oh. My. God. Look at this!” she exclaimed. “I have to trim all of these back for smoothies,” she said. “Look, like, honestly, gardening — food, that comes out of the dirt! Like, it’s magic!”
Who could possibly imagine that such a woman can better manage the production and harvesting of timber or graphite or wheat or milk or tomatoes, and the transportation costs and logistics for each of those things, or the production minutiae and costs of the various machinery that harvests and transports them, and the marketing and distribution costs of the products that are created by all of that, better than the countless individuals, uniquely skilled in their own respective trades, who are already doing that in their own, singular business ventures that come together in a free market in such a way as to create the absolute wonders around us?
Only a fool could possibly imagine that such central planning could ever work. If socialists like her are allowed to see their vision to the desired outcome, the world of wonders that countless millions of individuals have created in our past and present will cease to exist at worst. At best, we will have limited the wonders that individuals in a free market are capable of enjoying or achieving in the future.