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The Miraculous Market

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Tags The EntrepreneurFree MarketsWorld HistoryPhilosophy and Methodology

03/26/2009Leonard E. Read

[The substance of this essay, under the title "The Miracles by Which We Live," was delivered as the Commencement Address, Interlochen Arts Academy, Interlochen, Michigan, on June 11, 1965. It was first published in the book The Free Market and Its Enemies.Download PDF All of Read's books are now available for free download from Mises.org. An MP3 audio version of this essay, read by Floy Lilley, is available as a free download.]

Johannes Brahms

Awakening during the night, I flicked a bedside switch and soon the room was flooded with a piano concerto composed by Johannes Brahms. Perhaps the music itself induced a reflective mood: how explain this wonder of wonders for my enjoyment and with a near imperceptible effort on my part? What is at the root of this valued performance that comes to me "from out of the blue"?

Think of it! The finest orchestrations ever known to man, the most beautiful music any individual on earth has heard — all mine, and done for me privately when I want it, and where I want it, and for no more than the flick of a switch.[1] Staggering! Yet I, like most Americans, take it for granted. We absorb the enjoyment and let it go at that; we drink of the cup without gratitude, as if the gift were automatically our due.

Mostly, we only revel in our blessings — if we do not overlook them entirely; rarely do we count them and seldom do we try to account for them. As to the musical miracle — one among millions — not only do we fail to reflect on how it comes about but, worse, we aren't even aware of having experienced a miracle. The sad fact is that if we do not recognize our countless gifts as blessings, particularly those which an attribute of man has had a part in shaping, such blessings are not long for this world.

What is it we have been glossing over in this instance of the music? For one thing, I — no magician — collapsed time and space. Imagine, an ordinary person being able to collapse time and space! Yet, a musical masterpiece, composed in the last century and some 3,000 miles from my home, was mine at my singular point in time and space! What, pray tell, would Aristotle, Peter, Paul, Caesar, Bacon, Lorenzo, Adam Smith, Bastiat, Menger, Brahms himself, or the late Andrew Dickson White have thought of that! No doubt about it, their answers could be lumped in a word, "Unbelievable!"

What's going on here? That's the question. To bring time into a comprehensible dimension, let us reduce the 50,000 years since Cro-Magnon man to one year. We observe that the first crude printing press came into existence a little more than four days ago. Machine-made paper, without which the printing press is insignificant for the mass of people, was a device of yesterday. Only in the last few hours has there been "sheet music." Thus, the storing or canning of music for the common man followed yesterday's sunrise. The same can be said for "tune language" or musical notations. Prior to these developments Joe Doakes and Richard Roe had nothing better than memory as a means of storing music.

No one knew how to make piano wire 3½ days ago. Tonal variations in wind instruments were achieved with the lips; valves are brand new. The first audible reproduction of recorded sound was an event that happened early this morning, and what we now call "fidelity" has been achieved during the last few minutes. And reflect on the "wireless" transmissions of recorded sound and its progressive development beginning this day and continuing to the present moment.

I have, in the above, mentioned only suggestive milestones — a few among thousands — that, taken together, have made a magician of me in an area where I know next to nothing: by the mere flick of a switch I collapsed time and space, permitting a private audience with the finest music known to man.

Bear in mind that this magic is but an isolated instance among countless others. For example, I am writing this copy on an electric typewriter. The antecedents of this phenomenon defy one's imagination, going back, as they do, to the Paleozoic period and the decomposition of vegetable matter, and the formation of coal: works of nature. Then the works of man: mining the coal for fuel and steam, the making of engines and dynamos and transmission lines. Take this mechanical marvel itself: Nature and man working together, converting decayed vegetation of millions of years ago into a writing machine for my use! What fantastic creativity at work! What a remarkable conversion of potential energy into flowing, useful, kinetic energy!

For the most part, we make no effort to account for these miracles by which we live or, if we do, we settle for some oversimplified answers which must, perforce, fall far short of accuracy.[2] We conclude, for instance, that Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press, James Watt the steam engine, Robert Fulton the steamboat, Guglielmo Marconi the wireless, Alexander Graham Bell the telephone, Thomas Alva Edison the phonograph, and so on. We have a slipshod tendency to personalize phenomena as did the ancients who ascribed the quality of gods to forces that baffled them and gave names to the gods they contrived. Like them, we look for heroes and name them inventors. But this explains little or nothing. And, no doubt, these individuals thought of themselves as the creators of the artifacts linked with their names. Most of us find little difficulty in taking more credit for originality than the facts warrant.

Who Invented the Jet?

I must not, in this attempt to develop my central point, rob Edison and these other very remarkable men of their glory. But it is of vital importance that we know precisely their real claim to fame.

Consider, by way of analysis, the largest manufacturer of commercial jets. That company employs several thousand engineers. It is safe to say that not a waking hour passes, in any day of any year, without some of these engineers experiencing several little creativities, tiny think-of-thats, discoveries, ideas for the improvement of an already amazing artifact, a veritable magic carpet. True, an engineer, now and then, will have a whole series of think-of-thats, amounting to a breakthrough; many others have such experiences less frequently, and probably not a one of them draws a complete blank. The variation factor may be as great as 1:1000 — or even greater.

Search out the engineer who today experiences more creative ideas for improvement of the jet airliner than any of the others. Can it be said that he invented the jet? The notion that such a person invented the jet is just as absurd as crediting any of his predecessors with the achievement. This individual has only added his own think-of-thats to literally trillions of antecedent creativities, and no more can be claimed for any who came before him: Charles Goodyear who, in 1839, added some discoveries that led to the hot vulcanization of rubber; Orville and Wilbur Wright had some relevant creativities. And what about the thousands who had ideas leading to wind tunnels? Or the countless persons who thought how to alloy metals for strength, lightness, and heat resistance? Or the aerodynamicists whose creativities resulted in the swept wing? And what about those individuals who discovered that treating paper with a mixture of ferricyanide and ammonium ferric citrate would give us blueprint paper?[3] And the teachers who taught the engineers? Or what could have been accomplished had an alphabet not been contrived, or zero conceived?[4] Employing this line of reasoning, the modern jet is but a singular culmination of creativities that can be traced back to the think-of-thats which harnessed fire, and accounted for the first wheel and a crude stone ax.

The remarkable thing about Edison and his perceptive kind is the profusion of creativities that flows through their fertile minds. But they — every one of them — only add their own think-of-thats to millions of antecedent think-of-thats. What they do, as contrasted with most of us, is to supplement the antecedent buildup with precisely the right creativities which, when added, bring the new total to a patentable, usable, practical, marketable status. Theirs are crowning achievements — this is their genius.

Did Edison, by adding think-of-thats which finished off or completed the phonograph, for instance, make a greater contribution to that artifact than his predecessors? It seems to us that he did. Yet, we aren't really competent to allocate credit. What are we to say about the ones who first thought of how to harness fire, and the others, without whom Edison's accomplishment would have been impossible? How few would be the think-of-thats among us today, if antecedent creativities had developed nothing more than the harnessing of fire! We would experience little more in the way of creativities than dumb beasts. But into this barren situation let us imagine that a genie has tossed us some sheets of tin and a pair of tin snippers, both the tin and the snippers being culminations of millions of creativities. How such an act would stimulate think-of-thats! In short, the greater the number of antecedent creativities at one's disposal, the easier is his creativity. It is, therefore, quite possible that the greatest credit should go to those who accomplished breakthroughs when the antecedent creativities were fewer than at any given present, and creativity, thus, more difficult.

The above reflections on crowning achievements are meant only to dispel our tendency to oversimplification and to center attention where it belongs: on trillions upon trillions of tiny but complex and interacting creativities, the free flowing of which is, in fact, the free market!

Think of our gifts, these artifacts by which we live, not only as the discoveries of identifiable geniuses but as the outcroppings of a flowing, growing, evolving energy that goes back to the beginning of human consciousness. The miraculousness of the free market can be appreciated only when this concept is grasped, only when it is conceived of as flowing energy in depth.

These creativities, flowing through the minds of countless human beings over the ages, are the ultimate constituents of the artifacts by which we live, bearing a striking likeness, in their behavior, to the ultimate constituents in nature: molecules and atoms.[5] Just as atom-composed molecules, by some inexplicable process, miraculously configurate to form a blade of grass or a tree or whatever, so do creativities, as they manifest themselves through the minds of men, strangely configurate to form the goods and services which, before we discover their utility, only amaze and intrigue us.[6]

Strangely configurate! Indeed, how can we account for creativities flowing through millions of persons, very few of whom ever know of each other, combining to form these things we find useful? Unless we realize that we, with our own individual contributions, only partially account for these phenomena, we shall never fully grasp the miracle of the free market.

On earlier occasions I have erroneously written that these creativities merge or configurate into useful artifacts as a response to human demand and necessity. But, clearly, there was no demand — on the surface of life, at any rate — for Brahms's masterpieces before they existed. Only after they came into being did the demand develop. Who demanded electric power and light before anyone ever heard of such energy? Fire was not demanded prior to the think-of-thats and discoveries that harnessed it; until then, fire was an awesome, fearful force. How, then, are we to explain these flashes of brilliance that the recognized needs of man do not induce? These creativities proceed from a Source exterior to man!

Further, it becomes clear that these creativities pace our demands and define our necessities. The demand develops after these artifacts are formed by the creativities, and if the demand be great enough, the artifacts may well become necessities, a necessity being anything on which we become dependent. To illustrate, a hundred years ago there was no demand for electric power and light. Today the demand is enormous. And what's more, we have become dependent on this form of energy; were it suddenly eliminated, millions of us would perish; it is, indeed, a necessity.

Our Lives Depend on Trade

Assuming the above observations to be reasonably accurate, the free market takes on a new and even startling significance. To an extent rarely appreciated, creativities and their uninhibited exchanges — the free market — decide our demands and necessities; they "lead us by the nose," as the saying goes. But, is this so strange, and is it at odds with proper human aspirations? Not if it be conceded that the creativities flowing through the minds of men proceed from the same Creation that is responsible for the Cosmos and Nature. I can see not an iota of evidence to the contrary.

Nature, be it observed, "leads us by the nose." That is, oceans, lakes, forests, climates, deposits, soils, the sun's energy have powerful influences on where and how long we live, what our occupations are, what and with whom we exchange. Do not the flora and fauna have much to do with our individual destinies? Creation, as we observe it in Nature, is the fact given; it is the preordained arena of the human situation; it is the framework within which we better or worsen ourselves; choices about the overall framework are not ours to exercise.

I am affirming that creativities, as we observe them flowing through the minds of men, have the same Source as the creations we observe in Nature. Creative phenomena, once they take place, are as much the fact given as neutrons, protons, atoms, molecules, Old Sol. Man's creativities, discoveries, think-of-thats also control human destiny, the road we shall travel, where and how long we shall live, what and with whom we shall exchange, and so on.

If these creativities and their free flowing — the free market — do in fact have an overpowering influence in charting human destiny, is the fact to be deplored or rejoiced in? The answer must depend on at least two considerations.

The first has to do with the individual's major premise. If one's earthly goal is a freezing of the status quo, or getting out of life as distinguished from getting into a more intense quality of life, or avoiding the pain of change, growth, stretching the faculties, then, for certain, logic dictates that the fact be deplored.

But one can exult in the fact if his earthly goal be an expansion of consciousness, as nearly as possible, into a harmony with Infinite Consciousness (Creation or God). Taking the ever-changing, always-unexplored road that new creativities layout before us is compatible with evolution and consistent with the realization of one's own creative potentialities.

The second consideration has to do with the nature of the creativities themselves. Man has the choice of going wrong as well as right — and not all think-of-thats are on the side of the angels. Destructive or contorted ones take us on a road that leads to disaster, and these are to be deplored; only the constructive ones are to be looked upon favorably. I believe it is possible to identify the forces which promote the constructive ones as well as the forces which stimulate the destructive ones. But this must wait until we come to the discussion of the free market's enemy.

The Spiritual Nature of the Market

I re-emphasize that my only object is to gain a better insight into the miracle of the free market. Unfortunately, many persons who are capable of improved insights regard the free market as crass and materialistic and, thus, unworthy of their thoughtful attention.

On the contrary, I contend that there is no higher cultural pursuit — be it music, art, poetry, drama, or whatever — than acquiring an appreciation of the mysteries of the free market. This phenomenon, I believe, is a reflection of spiritual forces at work. At least this radical contention deserves a hard look.

The artifacts by which we live — from the wheel to an electronic computer — are generally thought of as having only materialistic properties. But what are they, really? This much we know: they are brought into existence by applying human creativities to the resources of Nature. We need only ask ourselves, what are creativities? And what are resources?

Creativities, ideas, think-of-thats, discoveries are as spiritual as the spirit of inquiry. Try, for instance, to find any materialistic substance in a thought. Ideas are spiritual or intellectual energy, as free of materialistic properties as is a dream.

What of the natural resources: coal, water, ore, trees? Of what are these constituted? Like human beings, they are structured of atoms, 30 trillions of which could be placed on the little period at the end of this sentence, without overlapping. And what is an atom? It is energy, as void of substance as a whisper from space, or light, or a radio wave, or a thought.[7]

In the final analysis, everything we conceive or perceive is radiant energy proceeding from Creation. It more than resembles — for it is, in fact — a spiritual force. Radiant energy configurates in ways beyond calculation. There isn't a quality we attribute to anything dull, bright, red, blue, solid, liquid, dead, alive, noisy, conscious, intelligent — but what is radiant energy in some of its infinite manifestations.

The musician, artist, poet, dramatist combine energy in the form of creativities with energy in the form of artifacts, and the combination of energies shows forth in new energy configurations such as Brahms's Piano Concerto in D Minor, Goethe's Faust, Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper, Shakespeare's King Lear.

Achieving an understanding of free-market phenomena is but gaining an awareness — a radiant energy manifestation itself — as to what makes possible such things as music, poems, paintings, plays, jet planes, or whatever. It is the study of free-flowing spiritual forces and the effect on them of man-made obstructions and contortions. It is learning about man's part in Creation. It is a cultural process in itself and fundamental to all else that is cultural.

Reflect, again, on what takes place when the beautiful music of a bygone master is yours for the mere flick of a switch. What is the nature of the miracle you so easily perform? It is this: trillions upon trillions of human creativities, extending back to the think-of-thats which harnessed fire, and all of the relevant discoveries since that prehistoric event, are automatically ushered to your service. No writer of magic ever thought to give his genie such a power as the free market bestows on you and me!

But we must not be led astray by dwelling unduly on the musical miracle. We also should be aware that the very same phenomena are at work when the grocer exchanges a can of beans for thirty cents, or when we drink a cup of coffee, or when we press a button and let the free market wash dishes while we read a book.

It isn't easy to understand how the free market washes dishes and performs countless other services in view of the fact that man has contended against creativities and their exchanges over the centuries — as if these were his foe. The market has never been, nor is it now, freed from stupidities and man-made hindrances. In the face of such frustrations, how can we explain the countless creative achievements?

Had all the little think-of-thats and their exchanges been completely thwarted, mankind would never have advanced beyond Cro-Magnon status. That the human situation has shown some improvement stems from the fact that stupidities and hindrances have rarely been able wholly to contain and suppress these creative energies; authoritarian arrangements have seldom succeeded in insulating them. These creative energies are everlastingly leaking through the porosity of destructive customs, taboos, edicts, laws. Manifestation is their destiny, and their power to escape constriction resembles lightning as it picks its way along lines of least resistance. Block it here and it goes there. "Thy will be done!"

"Historically speaking, the setbacks are temporary, but who wants to be an accomplice to evolutionary setbacks?"

The power of creative energies to manifest themselves in the face of man-made obstacles accounts for the progress we observe even when the worst elements in society get on top.[8] But these worst people and their numerous inanities, by themselves, are incapable of putting a crimp in evolution. The danger is that millions of people, observing progress and human intervention proceeding simultaneously, are tempted to correlate the two and, thus, regard the foolish actions as the cause of the progress. They may fail to see that the progress is in spite of the obstruction. In such situations the destructive forces become so overpowering that whole civilizations decline and fall. Historically speaking, the setbacks are temporary, but who wants to be an accomplice to evolutionary setbacks?

To avoid such disaster, we must know the nature of the evil forces.


[1] Admittedly, the connoisseur will not ascribe this quality to what he calls "tinned music."

[2] Considerable criticism is directed at my insistence on the use of the term "miracle." The critics, while agreeing that there is much that presently transcends human knowledge, will not allow that there is anything in the whole cosmic scheme but what can, sooner or later, be understood, scientifically verified, and explained. I shall let them have their way. As for me, I have discovered that the more I know, the more do I become exposed to the unknown and what I believe to be the unknowable. I see elements of the miraculous in everything.

[3] Blueprints important? It took 52 sets of 22,000 separate, original drawings for a recent new model jet!

[4] Zero, conceived during the early Middle Ages, "was the crowning achievement in the development of a number system in which calculation with large numbers was feasible. Without it modern astronomy, physics, and chemistry would be impossible." Without the conception of zero, the modern jet would be inconceivable. See Columbia Encyclopedia.

[5] I use the term "ultimate" with tongue in cheek. Who am I to say that the atom is the ultimate constituent in nature? Atomic scholars, after telling all they know, ask, "Does each proton and neutron in the nucleus [of the atom] have a dense core with a hazy, cloudlike thinning around it? Can it be that they have structure? Do protons and neutrons contain even more fundamental particles?" See The Atom by George L. Bush and Anthony A. Silvidi (New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1961), p. 139.

[6] It is after we adopt an artifact and begin to think of it as a necessity that we no longer marvel at the wonder of it. Familiarity makes it commonplace; we lapse into a supercilious indifference, and tend to stand in awe of nothing but novelty.

[7] The term "materialistic," when ascribed to artifacts, derives from a lack of depth perception. It has application to a table, for instance, only when no more can be perceived than a table with "substantial" properties. "Materialistic" loses its meaning — that is, it becomes nonapplicable — when a table is perceived as energy in motion. See the introduction to The Nature of the Physical World by Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1928).

[8] Lord Macaulay, beginning his The History of England in 1839, while not assigning reasons identical to mine, observed progress and destructive forces going on at the same time:

In every experimental science there is a tendency towards perfection. In every human being there is a wish to ameliorate his own condition. These two principles have often sufficed, even when counteracted by great public calamities and by bad institutions, to carry civilisation rapidly forward…. It has often been found that profuse expenditures, heavy taxation, absurd commercial restrictions, corrupt tribunals, disastrous wars, seditions, persecutions, conflagrations, inundation, have not been able to destroy capital so fast as the exertions of private citizens have been able to create it.

See his chapter three.

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