Reasons to Give Thanks for Capitalism

by: Mark J. Perry

You probably didn't call your local supermarket ahead of time and order your Thanksgiving turkey this year, did you? Why not? Because you automatically assumed that a turkey would be there when you showed up, and it probably was there when you showed up "unannounced" at the grocery store to select your bird.

And the reason your Thanksgiving turkey was waiting for you? Because of "spontaneous order," "self-interest," and the "invisible hand" of the free market -- "the mysterious power that leads innumerable people, each working for his own gain, to promote ends that benefit many." Even if turkeys appear in grocery stores every Thanksgiving only because of the "selfish greed" or "corporate greed" of turkey farmers and/or supermarkets, it sure works for me.

In a 2003 Boston Globe column titled "Giving Thanks for Capitalism" (available only in the paid archives), Jeff Jacoby explains (below) why he is thankful for the miracle of the invisible hand that makes turkeys automatically available so efficiently at Thanksgiving:

The activities of countless people over the course of many months had to be intricately choreographed and precisely timed, so that when you showed up to buy a fresh Thanksgiving turkey, there would be one -- or more likely, a few dozen -- waiting. The level of coordination that was required to pull it off is mind-boggling. But what is even more mind-boggling is this: No one coordinated it.

No turkey czar sat in a command post somewhere, consulting a master plan and issuing orders. No one forced people to cooperate for your benefit. And yet they did cooperate. When you arrived at the supermarket, your turkey was there. You didn't have to do anything but show up to buy it. If that isn't a miracle, what should we call it?

Adam Smith called it "the invisible hand" -- the mysterious power that leads innumerable people, each working for his own gain, to promote ends that benefit many. Out of the seeming chaos of millions of uncoordinated private transactions emerges the spontaneous order of the market. Free human beings freely interact, and the result is an array of goods and services more immense than the human mind can comprehend. No dictator, no bureaucracy, no supercomputer plans it in advance. Indeed, the more an economy *is* planned, the more it is plagued by shortages, dislocation, and failure.

It is commonplace to speak of seeing God's signature in the intricacy of a spider's web or the animation of a beehive. But they pale in comparison to the kaleidoscopic energy and productivity of the free market. If it is a blessing from Heaven when seeds are transformed into grain, how much more of a blessing is it when our private, voluntary exchanges are transformed - without our ever intending it - into prosperity, innovation, and growth?

As economist Steven Landsburg wrote in "Armchair Economics" about the invisible hand: "It is something of a miracle that individual selfish decisions lead to collectively efficient outcomes."