Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster.
Last year, a chap decided to make himself a chicken sandwich. Nothing unusual there, you might think; but this chap decided to do the whole thing from scratch. He milked a cow, curdled the milk to make cheese, killed a chicken, pickled a cucumber, boiled seawater to get salt, ground grain to bake bread. It took him six months, and you can watch the video he made about it here.
If I were an ‘A’-level economics teacher – and I’ll be looking for work in a year or two, so who knows – I’d show that video as part of my introductory lesson each September. It dramatises, in a way that everyone can understand, the breath-taking splendour of the capitalist system.
Imagine what life would be like if, instead of being able to trade for the things we wanted, we had to make them all ourselves. The simplest things would be unattainable. We’re not talking here about toasters or smartphones. We’re talking about a chicken sandwich.
Even the six months that it took the chap in the video is, in a sense, a cheat. He didn’t raise the cow or the chicken or the wheat himself; he flew to the sea-side to gather his brine. He was, in other words, making use of the structures of an advanced market economy. To feed himself while growing all his ingredients from scratch – let alone while trying to design and build an aeroplane to carry him to the coast for the salt – would have been impossible.
Truly the market is a thing of beauty. The next time you buy a chicken sandwich in Boots or Tesco, consider what has gone into it. Think, not just of the effort of producing the bread and the lettuce and the mayonnaise; think, too, of the lumberjack who felled the tree that made the cardboard wrapper; think of the lorry-driver who brought the sandwich from the depot to your street; think of the woman who keeps the accounts for that haulage company. And then contemplate the almost miraculous fact that that sandwich, instead of taking you six months to assemble, can be purchased for the equivalent of 19 minutes’ work on the minimum wage.
In that shrinkage – six months to 19 minutes – lies human civilisation. That freeing up of time is what has given us symphonies and space travel and smallpox vaccines and Snapchat. And here’s the best part. As the nexus expands, and more people are drawn into the production of sandwiches (and everything else), goods and services become cheaper, freeing up yet more time to invent further marvels.
How many times have you heard Left-wing friends argue that the market, while it may be efficient, is soulless? How often have they told you that material prosperity is no substitute for visiting friends or playing with your kids or reading poetry? Well, the next time people try that line with you, tell them about the six-month sandwich.
Our ancestors, whose supply networks were limited, and who were perforce relatively self-sufficient, needed to work around the clock simply to keep their families fed. They had very little time to visit friends, play with their kids or read poetry. Before global markets developed, hardly any human beings could read at all. Life was a constant struggle against disease, malnutrition and violence.
Open your eyes to the gorgeousness of what is around us. The choice you exercise when you buy a chicken sandwich is what elevates and ennobles our species. Far from being inhuman, trade is the defining characteristic of humanity. As the seer of Kirkcaldy, Adam Smith, put it: “Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog.”
While we’re about it, far from being oppressive, markets are what toppled the oligarchic states that had held sway from the earliest Bronze Age empires to the monarchical despotisms of the early modern period. Far from making us selfish, markets draw us into networks of mutual dependency, forcing us into empathy with our customers and colleagues. Far from hurting the poor, markets have raised the living standards of the masses to a pinnacle that previous generations could barely have imagined.
The most self-sufficient state in the world is North Korea, which pursues import-substitution as the supreme goal of economic policy. South Korea, by contrast, is an open economy, concentrating on what it does well and buying in everything else. Where would you rather live?
Outside a remaining handful of autarkic North Korea-like states, global poverty is tumbling at an unprecedented rate. The world isn’t just getting richer faster; its rate of acceleration is accelerating. Life is becoming, in every sense, more wonderful.