Paul Seabright buys a shirt


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 Cowen’s 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 World’s 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 world’s needs were met, and committees of bishops and pop stars would periodically remind us that s shirt on one’s 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 don’t 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 anyone’s 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.

8 thoughts on “Paul Seabright buys a shirt

  1. patrick

    This sounds like a long-winded rehashing of “I Pencil.” What, if anything, has this author added?

  2. Grant

    Patrick, thanks very much. In defense of Seabright, I think the “value add” of the book is to see if an understanding of our evolutionary origins can help us understand what happens “next” as we move into complex societies and economies. I didn’t cover this very well in the review. Will check out I pencil, for which many thanks. Best, Grant

  3. patrick

    Since I am the only commenter, I get to make a request. What’s the punchline? You say that Seabright has an alternative explanation to complexity theory. And that his answer is evolution. I guess I need a little more– is he claiming that people who arrange themselves into complex productive groups are evolutionarily selected? I thought the point of this production process is that you don’t involve yourself. Instead, you only _really_ have access to the little part of the process you control and your immediate neighbors (suppliers and buyers). It seems, then, that the people who are good at adding value and interacting with the near neighbors would be selected: but this still doesn’t explain the emergance of the larger system.

  4. grant


    thanks for your note, I am still reading and will let you know.

    I’ll tell you what’s happening here. As an anthropologist raised to believe that everything comes from on high, that is to say, from culture, I am still in the thrall of the idea that I have just found (yeah, no kidding) in Hakek, Postrel, complexity theory and now Seabright, that order is emergent.

    That’s the reason for this post. It seems to be to present this idea rather well. As to how the larger argument works, well, as I say, I am still reading.

    Best, Grant

  5. Michael Moore

    I’m wondering if I’ve being reading the same book. ‘The Company of Strangers’ addresses a current debate in pragmatic philosophy as to whether Man is in any significant way distinctive from animals. Seabright comes up with the radical idea that it is economic activity that is our defining feature. He then goes on to restate liberalism as a humane rather than a brutish political philosophy.

    His second contribution is to economic history. Economic growth is not inevitable but relies on our willingness to ‘keep the company of strangers’. In this respect, he presents the current anti-globalisation movement as inhuman.

  6. joe o

    “I,Pencil” is a short essay that can be found on the Internet with google.

    The Seabright book deals more with human nature, genetics and economic behavior. The shirt example of Seabright does track the pencil example from the essay, but the shirt example isn’t the focus of Seabright’s book.

  7. Sonia

    What did you think about the smile-laughter evolution? (pp 59-60) Would the difficulty in faking laughter be a temporal factor?

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