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A Modest Craft

Mises Daily: Wednesday, September 12, 2001 by

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It is at times like these that we in the financial sector are humbled in the presumption of our own importance and of the meaning of our works. Daily, we chase the ebb and flow of symbols and numbers across the screens and ticker tapes of the world, seeking to distill from them a fleeting pattern, or to recognize within them some more enduring form.

Rarely, if ever, amid the hubbub of the trading room or the raw intensity of the Pit, do we reflect on the power of such symbols. We crane for each flickering change in a terse alphanumeric—USZ1, DELL, CPI +0.2%, DAX +150—each of us striving uselessly, but compulsively, to see it before our peers do, or, with a little more purpose, to interpret it more quickly than they.

These electronic lights represent a stock, a bond, a currency; of that much we remain aware. But the stocks or bonds themselves are but symbols: a claim to the ownership of a minuscule fraction of some sprawling enterprise, or a right to receive payment from it in days to come.

Again, that payment—in dollars, or euros, or yen—is another symbol: a sign that men have "labored the earth," in Jefferson’s trenchant phrase, and that they seek to exchange the fruits of those labors for our own.

This is where the chain of ciphers and sigils leads us at last, then—to the efforts of ordinary men and women going about their daily lives, working at one thing, the thing at which they are most competent, in order to swap their efforts for other things, for a whole diversity of things, made, in turn, by countless, faceless others doing what they are good at, too.

By such free and open exchange, best conducted using fair and honest chains of symbols so that no man is unwittingly deluded or knowingly defrauded in the act, we each seek to serve our enlightened self-interest and satisfy both basic needs and wider aspirations. We find the opportunity where we are most rewarded, and we send out our labors into the vast, teeming, immaterial, immanent Market that is our world.

And—O Mirabile—what things come back, in what profusion, pouring in from all corners of the globe, from people we have never seen, whom we will never see, and who equally are oblivious to our very existence also.

This is the majesty of the free market, of capitalism, this self-organizing scheme that most fully utilizes our jeweled planet’s greatest resource—humanity itself—so that the masses of today live better than all the fearsome khans and haughty emperors of old.

But on Tuesday, out of a clear autumnal sky, all this was put at deadly hazard by earnest men, albeit men whose earnestness had been twisted into suicidal hatred by the potent brew of fanaticism and despair. By their intricate assault on the good people of the U.S., these men showed that they were versed in the power of symbols all too well.

To attack the Pentagon—a cabalistic form, if ever there was one—was shocking enough, displaying what guerrilla fighters have shown from time immemorial: that all of Caesar’s legions cannot guard against the man who fears nothing but to fail, and who holds his life most gloriously spent in depriving his enemies of theirs.

But far more shocking yet was the strike deep into the very heart of trade, of commerce, and of finance that those few crammed canyons of soaring steel and glittering glass at the tip of Manhattan represented, not just to America, but to the entire world. This was not just an abomination: in many ways, it was a deliberate act of sacrilege.

In tens of minutes, before unbelieving eyes staring from the streets below or gazing in horrid fascination at TV screens across the globe, fireball billowed into smoke and then collapse: crushing, utter, complete and roaring collapse. 

As though struck from where they stretched unto the very portals of some jealous god to choking dust and stumbling rubble, they fell in ruinous descent, and Hope itself seemed perished.

The Twin Towers, standing symbolically over Wall Street, were a 1,300-foot rendition of those two, short verticals that transform a mere "S" into a dollar, transmuting it to a symbol for work and wealth and well-being across the Earth. 

The enormity of the towers' swift destruction has been such as to suspend analysis. We have yet to truly register what has been done, how many lives have been lost in screaming (if mercifully brief) terror, how many countless other lives will bear the mark of what was wrought, shivering in the cold snatch of fear each time they see the suddenly naked skyline of New York.

It would be heartening to think that sober wisdom will now occasion restraint in the councils of the powerful, that the understandable desire for retribution, for lex talionis, to be invoked neither will lead to rash and unjust acts that only serve to excite more hatred, nor open up the way for the ever-eager State to intrude more insidiously in people’s lives at home, while snarling ever more belligerently at foes—real or imagined—abroad.

It would be heartening to believe that in America of all nations, the brash, young, self-confidence of its people will swiftly reassert itself, that temperance will season justice, and that this brief, vicarious brush with mortality will give rise to a more measured outlook on life. 

It would be heartening to think that, having been shocked by just how fragile is the framework on which we build our dreams, we will become less prone to forcing them upon others. Our fear must be that, in a world already made fractious and divided by the inexorable, UN-inspired, left-liberal-sanctioned politicizing of race and creed and gender, a world made insecure by the erosion of freedom and the imposition of alien values by the Guardians of our global Platonic republic, yet more discord is sown.

We must also fear that, in a world made resentful by seeing the fruits of its labors channeled to vainglorious corporate demi-gods who strut the stage like Achilles simply because a hyperactive credit system has grossly inflated their stock price, Capitalism is made to take the blame.

Capitalism is about the better production of wealth and its distribution through unrestricted exchange. It is about the multiplication of output that comes about by the division of labor. It is about the preservation of capital—those mental and physical tools that build each successive flight on our long stairway out of penury and deprivation—and it achieves that preservation only by the common virtue of thrift and the duty of stewardship on one hand, and by the banishment of envy and the sanctity of property upon the other.  

Capitalism is about "laboring the earth" more fruitfully so that fewer men go needy, so that the next fanatic finds less willing recruits, so that amid bustling commercial intercourse, barriers of class and race and ignorance are dissolved into mutual respect and benefit.

Capitalism is nothing to do with the agents of the Crown who sail alongside the honest argosies of trade. Capitalism is nothing to do, either, with the forced acceptance of any creed or code of law, save that of the honest self-interest by which both buyer and seller achieve an increment of value in their exchange. 

For we must realize that Capitalism, this most certain route to prosperity devised by man, is also the victim of the exactions of the State and the depredations of the credit system. Why else, even before yesterday’s barbaric deeds, were we increasingly in peril of our livelihoods, our investments, and our savings?

Sadly, that is a verity too rarely glimpsed when the battle ensigns of the fleet and the jolly rogers of the corsairs are concealed amid the merry, ingenuous bunting of the mass of ordinary merchantmen seeking innocently to ply their trade.

From this passing meditation on these matters, which this week’s dark happenings have prompted, we shall soon return to the business of chasing symbols and trying to make sense of them. That is, after all, our modest craft in the rich whirl of the market.

For today, we pray for the maimed and the bereaved. We are anxious for the path of the economy and our immediate prosperity. We fret that liberty will once again be the most enduring loser.

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Sean Corrigan is a principal of capitalinsight.co.uk, a London-based economic consultancy. See his Mises.org archive. He can be reached at sean@capitalinsight.co.uk