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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Markets and Human Excellence

Thoughts inspired by watching a short-order cook.

One of the most wonderful feelings I experience is my aesthetic response to being in the presence of human excellence. A certain combination of glee and awe comes with watching people who are really good at what they do. For me this response is particularly associated with sports and music. Watching great athletes make great plays is simply one of life’s great joys, and the same is true of watching and listening to great musicians do their thing. Head over to YouTube for shootout goals by Pavel Datsyuk or drum solos by Neil Peart and you’ll see what I mean.

It is tempting to associate excellence with internationally famous athletes and musicians and to think it happens only on stage, field, court, or rink. Thankfully there are diverse forms of excellence all around us. Moreover, these varieties of excellence are made possible to a significant degree by the market economy. Markets democratize human excellence by providing more people more opportunities to achieve it and, in so doing, to improve the lives of us all.

Secret Desire

Those who know me well know that I have a great love for diner food, especially breakfasts, and a secret desire to be a short-order cook. On my way to the airport last week, I stopped for breakfast at a truck-stop diner. I had eaten there once before, but not for breakfast, and after driving by it for almost 22 years, I finally decided to stop again.

I was able to get a seat at the counter and watch the flat-top cook in action. Within a couple of minutes I knew I was in the presence of excellence. Watching this guy crank out breakfasts triggered exactly the same aesthetic response I have to great athletes and musicians. His ability to stay focused on multiple orders and get the timing of the pancakes, eggs, and bacon just right — all with an economy of motion like that of great athletes and musicians — was simply breathtaking.

And like great athletes and musicians, this was not simply physical skill. Doing what he was doing with his speed and accuracy requires immense concentration and the ability to juggle multiple mental processes at once. This sort of excellence requires the full engagement and integration of mind and body. Neil Peart once compared playing three hours of complex rock drums to running a marathon while solving calculus problems in your head. The same is true of players judging angles on the hockey rink or basketball court. If I hadn’t a flight to catch, I would have stayed there all day watching this guy work.

Open to All

Like that cook, millions of people achieve excellence daily, each in their own way and in their own corner of the marketplace. Excellence is not just open to a select few, but is possible to all. The market makes it more likely for two reasons.

The first was identified by Adam Smith: The division of labor within a production process makes each worker more productive at what he or she does. By focusing only on the flat top rather than also serving customers or prepping the food, the cook is able to get progressively better at the one thing he does. The finer this degree of specialization, the more such improvement can take place.

Second, the market links improvement in skill to the role profit plays in providing the incentives and knowledge required to serve consumers well. The need to produce good food quickly, and the ability to judge success by calculating profit and loss, contributes to the achievement of excellence. There is a reason it is more common in the private, rather than in the public, sector.

While not all forms of excellence command the salaries that athletes and musicians command, each form serves other people in its own way and, because of the magic of comparative advantage, brings some reward in the marketplace. Excellence is indeed all around us. We just need to take the time to appreciate it.

  • Steven Horwitz was the Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise in the Department of Economics at Ball State University, where he was also Director of the Institute for the Study of Political Economy. He is the author of Austrian Economics: An Introduction.