[Excerpted from Ludwig von Mises on Money and Inflation: A Synthesis of Several Lectures, compiled by Bettina Bien Greaves. This lecture was given at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE).]
Human cooperation is different from the activities that took place under prehuman conditions in the animal kingdom and among isolated persons or groups during the primitive ages. The specific human faculty that distinguishes man from animal is cooperation. Men cooperate. That means that, in their activities, they anticipate that activities on the part of other people will accomplish certain things in order to bring about the results they are aiming at with their own work.
The market is that state of affairs under which I am giving something to you in order to receive something from you. I don't know how many of you have some inkling, or idea, of the Latin language, but in a Latin pronouncement 2,000 years ago already, there was the best description of the market — do ut des — I give in order that you should give. I contribute something in order that you should contribute something else. Out of this there developed human society, the market, peaceful cooperation of individuals. Social cooperation means the division of labor.
The various members, the various individuals, in a society do not live their own lives without any reference or connection with other individuals. Thanks to the division of labor, we are connected with others by working for them and by receiving and consuming what others have produced for us. As a result, we have an exchange economy which consists in the cooperation of many individuals. Everybody produces, not only for himself alone, but for other people in the expectation that these other people will produce for him. This system requires acts of exchange.
The peaceful cooperation, the peaceful achievements of men, are effected on the market. Cooperation necessarily means that people are exchanging services and goods, the products of services. These exchanges bring about the market. The market is precisely the freedom of people to produce, to consume, to determine what has to be produced, in whatever quantity, in whatever quality, and to whomever these products are to go. Such a free system without a market is impossible; such a free system is the market.
We have the idea that the institutions of men are either (1) the market, exchange between individuals, or (2) the government, an institution that, in the minds of many people, is something superior to the market and could exist in the absence of the market. The truth is that the government — that is the recourse to violence, necessarily the recourse to violence — cannot produce anything. Everything that is produced is produced by the activities of individuals and is used on the market in order to receive something in exchange for it.
It is important to remember that everything that is done, everything that man has done, everything that society does, is the result of such voluntary cooperation and agreements. Social cooperation among men — and this means the market — is what brings about civilization and it is what has brought about all the improvements in human conditions we are enjoying today.