I used to think prices were unfair. Not just the price of gas or rent—all prices. Prices let some people have plenty of something while others have none. So in high school, I dabbled in Marxism, taking as axiomatic that the true worth of an object comes from the effort it took to produce it. With the intent of shattering the foundations of our bourgeois capitalist system, I opened up an introductory economics textbook—and my world turned upside-down.
I learned that prices aren’t set by distant oligarchs masterminding the daily oppression of common laborers. They don’t represent the “true worth” of something—what does “true worth” even mean? What prices are is information. Prices signify the unique intersection of supply and demand, a fact that was only expressed mathematically after prices had been used for thousands of years. Prices coordinate markets, eliminating the need for Soviet commandants to order production adjustments, or for congressmen to quibble about what they think is fair. As crude as they may seem, prices are the most innovative way yet devised for human beings to inform each other about their economic problems.
I believe that all problems are information problems. Socrates proposed that to know what is right is to do it. That may sound counterintuitive—surely people knowingly do wrong?—but I agree with him. We slip when we lose our moral clarity. That doubt is what makes it possible to violate our own beliefs. And if we accept that premise, it follows that knowledge is the cure for all human frailty.
An alternative proof can be derived from the question: What makes us distinct as individuals? Obviously, the answer lies in our independent brains. If my neurons were as interwoven with your neurons as they are with each other, we would exchange information so effectively that we would share a single consciousness. And if every human being had access to all of the same neural information, our entire species would be one global organism.
Of course, that’s impossible. But it serves as a sort of ideal, a world with no war, no crime, no cruelty, a world in which no solvable problem goes unsolved. We should keep that ideal in mind as we confront the common mix-ups and misunderstandings that, all too often, lead to serious consequences.
That’s not to say that free markets are the solution to all of our problems. Neither is an all-knowing, all-powerful autocratic supercomputer, a god created by Man to rule him until the end of time. There’s a healthy medium to be struck. And we’re getting there. Our society is evolving, constantly devising new and often brilliant cultural, political and technological solutions to our age-old struggle to spread our collective wisdom.
Ultimately, competition and cooperation are means to the same end: The aspirations of 6.7 billion people, each of them trying to solve the puzzle of their own existence. Together, we might just have an answer.
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