Giving thanks for the magic of the marketplace, the invisible hand of strangers, and no turkey czars

This Thanksgiving post has been an annual tradition at CD and I feature a slightly revised version again this year!

Like in previous years, most of you probably didn’t call your local supermarket ahead of time and order a Thanksgiving turkey this year. Why not? Because you automatically assumed that a turkey would be there when you showed up, and it probably was there when you appeared “unannounced” at your local grocery store and selected your Thanksgiving bird this week. We got two frozen Butterball turkeys on Monday at Costco for $0.99 per pound — what a bargain!

The reason your Thanksgiving turkey, like ours, was waiting for you without an advance order? Because of the economic concepts of “spontaneous order,” “self-interest,” and the “invisible hand” of the free market. Turkeys appeared in your local grocery stores primarily because of the “self-interest” (greed?) of thousands of turkey farmers, truck drivers, and supermarket owners and employees who are complete strangers to you and your family. But all of those strangers throughout the turkey supply chain co-operated on your behalf and were led by the “invisible hand” to make sure your family had a turkey (or two) on the table to celebrate Thanksgiving this Thursday. The “invisible hand” that was responsible for your holiday turkey is just one of millions of everyday examples of the “miracle of the marketplace” where “individually selfish decisions must lead to collectively efficient outcomes,” as economist Steven E. Landsburg observed.

In a 2003 Boston Globe article titled “Giving Thanks for the Invisible Hand,” syndicated columnist Jeff Jacoby offered a wonderful tribute to the miracle of the invisible hand that makes affordable turkeys available so efficiently every year at Thanksgiving through the power of “spontaneous order” and without the need for any central planning or “turkey czars”:

Isn’t there something wondrous — something almost inexplicable — in the way your Thanksgiving weekend is made possible by the skill and labor of vast numbers of total strangers?

To bring that turkey to the dining room table required the efforts of thousands of people — the poultry farmers who raised the birds, of course, but also the feed distributors who supplied their nourishment and the truckers who brought it to the farm, not to mention the architect who designed the hatchery, the workmen who built it, and the technicians who keep it running. The bird had to be slaughtered and de-feathered and inspected and transported and unloaded and wrapped and priced and displayed. The people who accomplished those tasks were supported in turn by armies of other people accomplishing other tasks — from refining the gasoline that fueled the trucks to manufacturing the plastic in which the meat was packaged.

The activities of countless far-flung men and women 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?

Bottom Line: As you celebrate Thanksgiving tomorrow with your family and friends, remember to express some thanks and gratitude to the thousands of “invisible” strangers who won’t be there in person, but who were led by the “invisible hand” of the market over the last several months to become your “Thanksgiving benefactors” and make sure your affordable holiday feast was possible once again.

I’ll end the post with a great, related quote from President Ronald Reagan, who said in 1981:

The societies that have achieved the most spectacular, broad-based progress are neither the most tightly controlled, nor the biggest in size, nor the wealthiest in natural resources. No, what unites them all is their willingness to believe in the magic of the marketplace.

On Thanksgiving Day, we should all remember to be thankful for the “miracle and magic of the marketplace” and the “blessings of spontaneous order and the invisible hand” that are directly responsible for the economic prosperity and abundance that we enjoy not just on a single holiday once a year, but every day of the year living in a market economy.

Related: See recent CD post “Despite concerns about inflation, the real cost (and ‘time cost’) of Thanksgiving dinner this year is among the most affordable in history.” We’ve also heard numerous media reports recently about the “most expensive Thanksgiving dinner in history,” which are inaccurate misrepresentations of economic reality. Of course, the cost of a Thanksgiving dinner is almost always higher every year measured in nominal (current) dollars. But to correctly measure the real cost of a turkey dinner over time is to adjust for inflation and compare the annual cost in constant, inflation adjusted dollars. Or even better, we should compute the cost of a Thanksgiving dinner measured in the amount of time (in hours) the average American needs to work to earn enough income to pay for the menu items in a traditional turkey dinner. By either measure, the cost of a Thanksgiving this year is among the most affordable in US history.

Bon appetit!


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