Fraser Forum

Voluntary market exchanges: a thing of beauty

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Most people probably don’t think of free markets as beautiful. They’re dynamic. They’re productive. They’re useful. But beautiful? That’s not really a word we associate with them.

But we should.

Back in 1711, Joseph Addison thought of the Royal Exchange in London as something as dramatic and emotionally charged as the best kind of theatre. “This grand Scene of Business gives me an infinite Variety of solid and substantial Entertainments. As I am a great Lover of Mankind, my Heart naturally overflows with Pleasure at the sight of a prosperous and happy Multitude… For this reason I am wonderfully delighted to see such a Body of Men thriving in their own private Fortunes, and at the same time promoting the Publick Stock; or in other Words, raising Estates for their own Families, by bringing into their Country whatever is wanting, and carrying out of it whatever is superfluous.”

A little further into the century, Adam Smith finds a different kind of beauty in the cooperative exchanges that make up markets and produce individual prosperity and the wealth that builds great nations when he details the multitudinous possessions of an English peasant and concludes that “if we examine, I say, all these things, and consider what a variety of labour is employed about each of them, we shall be sensible that, without the assistance and co-operation of many thousands, the very meanest person in a civilized country could not be provided, even according to, what we very falsely imagine, the easy and simple manner in which he is commonly accommodated. …[T]he accommodation of an European prince does not always so much exceed that of an industrious and frugal peasant, as the accommodation of the latter exceeds that of many an African king, the absolute masters of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked savages.”

More recently, Hans Rosling and the Competitive Enterprise Institute have provided some stunning visual representations of the beauties of the exchanges that create a free market and the pleasures that result.

But these observers of the aesthetics of markets are nearly all economists. And everyone knows that Addison was hopelessly concerned with the material and the mercantile. Surely real lovers of art and beauty don’t see anything in the free market that’s worth celebrating.


But maybe the 20th century American poet Gary Soto has quietly given us a truly beautiful description of the cooperative and productive nature of voluntary market exchanges. In his poem “How Things Work” he details a walk he takes with his daughter, as they go about their day’s errands. Counting down the money in his pocket as he purchases the necessities and luxuries that make up their life, he notes that the money they spend “filters down like rain” sustaining those who earn it from him when they, in turn, use it to purchase things from others. Soto acknowledges that the complexities of the market are too much to contain in the span of his poem, or to explain to his child, but he sees the quiet beauty of its cycles and the way “things just keep going. I guess.”

Those of us who appreciate the beauty of the free market—as well as its productivity, its efficiency and its power—should celebrate these moments of aesthetic pleasure and share them. Otherwise we risk losing the voices of some of our most talented advocates, speaking a language that appeals to many we long to reach.

How Things Work
By Gary Soto

Today it’s going to cost us twenty dollars
To live. Five for a softball. Four for a book,
A handful of ones for coffee and two sweet rolls,
Bus fare, rosin for your mother’s violin.
We’re completing our task. The tip I left
For the waitress filters down
Like rain, wetting the new roots of a child
Perhaps, a belligerent cat that won’t let go
Of a balled sock until there’s chicken to eat.
As far as I can tell, daughter, it works like this:
You buy bread from a grocery, a bag of apples
From a fruit stand, and what coins
Are passed on helps others buy pencils, glue,
Tickets to a movie in which laughter
Is thrown into their faces.
If we buy a goldfish, someone tries on a hat.
If we buy crayons, someone walks home with a broom.
A tip, a small purchase here and there,
And things just keep going. I guess.


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