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Acton Notes - President's Message

Dear Friends,

The main objections to the market economy I hear are not related to economics. Most people grant the productivity and efficiency of markets, with reservations. The most substantial objections I hear are concerning aesthetics and matters of virtue.

The classical idea of beauty deals with issues of form, symmetry, and internal integrity. We have a hard time imagining that the market can be considered beautiful by that standard. Why? Because there is ceaseless change in a market, and at any one time its form consists of the full range of human proclivities, including evil ones.

A more modern idea of beauty emphasizes that beauty has no objective standard, that it is something we decide for ourselves. If we argue that the market is beautiful, must we then also buy into the idea that there is no standard by which we can objectively judge beauty? I don’t think so. It is possible for us to gain a greater appreciation of how the market partakes of the classical idea. It has form. It coordinates the trading decisions of billions of people across all lands and does so using this remarkable little number called the price, which is generated spontaneously.

If you have ever taken a flight and looked down, you see what form is. You can’t see the full picture from the ground but from a bird’s-eye view you may be awestruck by the houses, parks, shopping centers, and how they are all laid out as if by an invisible hand. This is the market at work. We usually think of artists as the creators of beauty, but entrepreneurs are no less artists in what they create: prosperity where there was none, food and medicine for the hungry and sick, technological marvels we can’t even imagine before they fall into our laps.

But what is the highest standard of beauty? God is, and by that standard all human institutions fall short, including markets. And yet if there is a chance for human beings to do spectacular things, the voluntary social order that allows freedom is absolutely essential, and the market is a part of that.

Thank you for all you do to help us defend this essential institution.