People tend to objectify the market; unless they are careful, they think that it is much like a supermarket, only bigger and broader. This is a serious, though understandable, mistake. “The market is not a place, a thing, or a collective entity,” Ludwig von Mises writes in Human Action. “The market is a process.” In other words, the market is the complex pattern that spontaneously emerges as people freely exchange less-valued goods for more-valued ones.
We will see a similar sort of spontaneous pattern emerge this Fourth of July. The American Automobile Association estimates that, in the Acton Institute’s home state of Michigan, nearly two million people will take to the highways for the holiday. Think about it: Roughly 20 percent of Michigan’s population will leave their homes, get in their cars, and make billions of decisions about where to go and how to get there. They will decide what to eat, where to lodge, and what to do. Two million people will pursue two million objectives of their own choosing. One might think this would be a recipe for chaos, yet order will predominate—and without any coordinating central authority. To be sure, the spontaneous order that emerges will be imperfect—what in this world isn’t?—but the marvelous thing is that it will work at all.
“There is nothing inhuman or mystical with regard to the market,” Mises reminds us. “Every market phenomenon can be traced back to definite choices of the members of the market society.” The study of economics is really the study of human persons and their actions. Placing the basis of economic inquiry squarely in the realm of human action also establishes the common ground necessary for ethical interaction with economics, for ethics, too, is concerned with the study of the human person. The Acton Institute continues to foster this dialogue between ethics and economics—most recently with our Homiletics Award program and Christian Social Thought Series monographs—which your support makes possible.
Fr. Robert A. Sirico