Most anthropologists are pretty bad at explaining how culture and the economy work together to fashion our world in an emergent way (see my post for May 6 for a statement of the problem).
In his remarkable new book, The Company of Strangers, Paul Seabright, an economist, goes squarely at the issue.
He begins by describing his new shirt.
The cotton was grown in India, from seeds developed in the United States; the artificial fiber in the thread count comes from Portugal and the material in the dyes from at least six other countries; the collar linings come from Brazil, and the machinery for weaving, cutting, and sewing from Germany; the shirt itself was made up in Malaysia. (p. 13)
This sounds a little like Tyler Cowens treatment of a global economy, but Seabright has another purpose in mind.
What, he asks, if shirt production had to be planned?
One can imagine an incoming president of the United States being presented with a report entitled The Worlds Need for Shirts, trembling at its contents, and immediately setting up a Presidential Task Force. The United Nations would hold conferences on ways to enhance international cooperation in shirt-making, and there would be arguments over whether the UN or the U.S. should take the lead. The pope and the archbishop of Canterbury would issue calls for everyone to pull together to endure that the worlds needs were met, and committees of bishops and pop stars would periodically remind us that s shirt on ones back is a human right. Experts would be commissioned to examine the wisdom of making collars in Brazil for shirts made in Malaysia for re-export to Brazil. More experts would suggest that by cutting back on the wasteful variety of frivolous styles it would be possible to make dramatic improvements in the total number of shirts produced. (14)
But of course new shirts dont come from planning. As Seabright says,
The entire enterprise of supply shirts in thousands and thousands of styles to millions and millions of people takes place without any overall coordination at all. (14)
We forget how miraculous are the emergent properties of this enterprise.
Citizens of the industrialized market economies have lost their sense of wonder at the fact that they can decide spontaneously to go out in search of food, clothing, furniture and thousands of other useful, attractive, frivolous or life-saving items and when they do so, somebody will have anticipated their actions and thoughtfully made such items available for them to buy. (15)
And this is the point of this remarkable book. This is to show:
how even some of the simplest activities of modern society depend upon intricate webs of international cooperation that function without anyones being in overall charge. It seems hard to believe that something as complex as a modern industrial society could possibly work at all without an overall guiding intelligence, but since the work of the economist Adam Smith in the eighteenth century, we have come to realize that this is exactly how things are. (4)
What particularly interests Seabright is that this miracle of coordination is now being performed by ‘the same shy, murderous ape that had avoided strangers throughout its evolutionary history and now somehow proves capable of “living, working and moving among complete strangers in their millions. That is to say, us.
The question is a good one: “how the hell does this happen?” How does impossibly complicated order emerge from various, uncoordinated, unplanned projects. Complexity theory is one answer to this question. Seabright has another.
This book is highly recommended.
Cowen, Tyler. 2002. Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World’s Cultures. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Seabright, Paul. 2004. The Company of Strangers: A natural history of economic life. Princeton: Princeton University Press.