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Scurvy, among Other Problems, Went Away

Mises Daily: Wednesday, July 13, 2011 by

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[Preface to It's a Jetsons World: Private Miracles and Public Crimes (2011). An MP3 audio file of this article, narrated by Steven Ng, is available for download.]

It's a Jetsons World: Private Miracles and Public Crimes

One morning I was reading about how in the past many thousands of people died from scurvy, and solely because travelers on the high seas had such limited access to fruit and vitamin C. Scurvy was documented in the ancient world, and, in the 300 years after 1500, may have killed as many as 2 million sailors. The fear of scurvy has been one of millions of terrifying fears that have consumed the human psyche for all of human history until very recently. Now we know and care nearly nothing about it.

That same morning, I visited a hotel breakfast buffet and there was a display of seemingly unlimited fruit and juice available for everyone, fruit of all types and from all over the world. They were in large carafes with no limit on how much people could pour.

My eyes popped out in amazement, and I stood thinking of the miracle and its implications, even as everyone else poured up glass after glass of whatever they wanted from the juice bar. I'm quite sure that no one thought anything of it.

What's more, should I find myself with a hankering for fruit wherever I might be traveling, I can pull out my digital device and search for a local store. The navigation tools can get me there from wherever I happen to be. When I get there, I can compare prices with all the other stores to make sure that I get the best deal, and then initiate a video call anywhere in the world and talk about how great the orange I just ate was. Then I can quickly discover the nutritional properties with a search, and even make a video of my feast and post it with a wireless device, and that video can be hosted on an external site in minutes, to be watched by all my friends when I link it on a Facebook account — again from a wireless device in my hand — and then this same video can become oddly popular and elicit a million views over the course of a few days. The whole thing is new. None of this would have been possible even 5 years ago or even 12 months ago.

Yes, there is a revolution afoot, one that is happening much more quickly than the Industrial Revolution. We are living in the middle of it, and yet there is a strange lack of consciousness about it. To the extent that we are conscious of it, we complain about it. We complain that there is too much food available and this tempts us to get fat. We complain about the digitization of society. We watch movies about the hidden evils of the grocery stores and wonder if the fruit was somehow sprayed with evil chemicals that are going to give us autism or cancer or something. The market economy is delivering miracles by the minute, and yet we hardly notice or care; worse, we denounce the realization of this dream of all of history, this coming of heaven on earth, and call it decadent and dangerous.

This is a tragedy, in my own view. We should be conscious of the cause-and-effect relationships operating in the world of human action that give rise to the globally extended order we call the market economy, an order fueled by human choices, entrepreneurship, and relentless learning and copying — and kept together by pricing signals, private property, and the freedom to trade. These institutions are what are bestowing miracles on us every day, the Jetsons world that amazes me every day.

We also need to be aware of its opposite, the gargantuan apparatus of compulsion and coercion called the state, which operates on principles that are anachronistic to the core. Its principle is violence, and its contributions to the social order are prisons, economic upheaval, and war. It is lumbering, stupid, and angry as hell, and it is the main drag on the world today. The contrast with the market is overwhelming.

An underlying assumption in this book is no different from that found in innumerable books of this bent: that there is nothing that the state does that either needs to be done or cannot be done better within the matrix of voluntary action and exchange. I hope my examples herein provide a compelling elucidation of this idea at work in our times.

Why is this message important? Knowledge in human history is easily lost. Humanity variously knew the cause and cure of scurvy, and then the wisdom disappeared, and then it had to be rediscovered again. This happened several times, and the last time the cure for scurvy was found again was as late as the 20th century. So it is with human liberty: the truth of its organizing and productive power was known in the ancient world, but the truth keeps having to be rediscovered. This book is a contribution to the hope that the knowledge won't be lost.