I spent last weekend in New York with some friends who moved there in the fall. Saturday was sunny and warm, so we walked all around Brooklyn, scoping out libraries, parks, neighborhoods, restaurants, shops, and the greatest variety of people walking on the streets.
It’s always fun exploring a place with people who have lived there for a while but are still new enough to be able to get a little bit lost. That way I end up seeing much that might be missed by tourists with a defined plan. Plus it provides for unexpected delights such as when a concrete and brick canyon opened for the Brooklyn Bridge, revealing the most incredible view of Manhattan across the water.
The first word that came to my mind while taking in this view was “cosmos.”
Although New York isn’t exactly a paragon of freedom, the city is a testament to the power of people to create beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. Cosmos is the order that emerges through no master plan or design, but through countless actions that play off each other, adapt, and play some more.
Play is vital to life, the universe, and everything. Just as electrons and protons play to form new atoms, children play to learn about the world. And without recognizing it, each of us plays every day to discover new ways to help ourselves by helping others.
It was through lots and lots of play that humanity "discovered" the market as a way to trade with those we don't know. This was something of a miracle given how sensitive people are to status, wealth, and material possessions. A market economy may be the most equitable way to provision scarce resources, but it almost never creates equal outcomes. (Despite people’s bias toward equality, this is a crucial feature of the market, not a bug.)
But "the market" didn't exist independently of people, and wouldn't exist independently of people using money or prices or private property or any of its other institutional innovations. So it wasn't discovered in the normal sense, like fire. This is where cosmos comes in: the institutions of the market emerged and played to create an orderly system that only now seems obvious.
Through our own experience, we can infer how and why the market happened, so it's not a mystery like God, but it's sometimes a mystery to me how we haven't yet messed it all up.
As I begin my work at FEE today, my mission statement is to provide programs and opportunities that will permit every young person to see the world through the economic lens, to make better decisions in their own lives, and, when asked, to make decisions on behalf of others.
We may not be able to solve the mysteries of the universe, but we are able to make our pale blue dot in the cosmos a bit better for everyone.