The Company of Strangers
This morning I went out and bought a shirt. There is nothing very unusual in that: across the world, perhaps 20 million people did the same. What is more remarkable is that I, like most of these 20 million, had not informed anybody in advance of what I was intending to do. Yet the shirt I bought, although a simple item by the standards of modern technology, represents a triumph of international cooperation. The cotton was grown in India, from seeds developed in the United States; the artificial fiber in the thread 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 the weaving, cutting, and sewing from Germany; the shirt itself was made up in Malaysia. The project of making a shirt and delivering it to me in Toulouse has been a long time in the planning, since well before the morning two winters ago when an Indian farmer first led a pair of ploughing bullocks across his land on the red plains outside Coimbatore. Engineers in Cologne and chemists in Birmingham were involved in the preparation many years ago. Most remarkably of all, given the obstacles it has had to surmount to be made at all and the large number of people who have been involved along the way, it is a very stylish and attractive shirt (for what little my judgment in these matters may be worth). I am extremely pleased at how the project has turned out. And yet I am quite sure nobody knew that I was going to be buying a shirt of this kind today; I hardly knew it myself even the day before. Every single one of these people who has been laboring to bring my shirt to me has done so without knowing or indeed caring anything about me. To make their task even more challenging, they, or people very much like them, have been working at the same time to make shirts for all of the other 20 million people of widely different sizes, tastes, and incomes, scattered over six continents, who decided independently of each other to buy shirts at the same time as I did. And those were just today's clients. Tomorrow there will be another 20 million—perhaps more.
If there were any single person in overall charge of the task of supplying shirts to the world's population, the complexity of the challenge facing them would call to mind the predicament of a general fighting a war. 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 ensure that the world's needs were met, and committees of bishops and pop stars would periodically remind us that a shirt on one's back is a human right. The humanitarian organization 'Couturiers sans Frontieres' would airlift supplies to sartorially challenged regions of the world. 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. Factories which had achieved the most spectacular increases in their output would be given awards, and their directors would be interviewed respectfully on television. Activist groups would protest that 'shirts' is a sexist and racist category and propose gender- and culture-neutral terms covering blouses, tunics, cholis, kurtas, barongs, and the myriad other items that the world's citizens wear above the waist. The columns of newspapers would resound with arguments over priorities and needs. In the cacophony I wonder whether I would still have been able to buy my shirt.
In fact there is nobody in charge. The entire vast enterprise of supplying shirts in thousands and thousands of styles to millions and millions of people takes place without any overall coordination at all. The Indian farmer who planted the cotton was concerned only with the price this would subsequently fetch from a trader, the cost to him of all the materials, and the effort he would have to put in to realize an adequate harvest. The managers of the German machinery firm worry about export orders and their relations with their suppliers and their workforce. The manufacturers of chemical dyes could not care less about the aesthetics of my shirt. True, there are certain parts of the operation where there is substantial explicit coordination: a large company like ICI or Coats Viyella has many thousands of employees working directly or indirectly under a chief executive. But even the largest such company accounts for only a tiny fraction of the whole activity involved in the supply of shirts. Overall there is nobody in charge. We grumble sometimes about whether the system works as well as it could (I have to replace broken buttons on my shirts more often than seems reasonable). What is truly astonishing is that it works at all.
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 that when they do so, somebody will have anticipated their actions and thoughtfully made such items available for them to buy. For our ancestors who wandered the plains in search of game, or scratched the earth to grow grain under a capricious sky, such a future would have seemed truly miraculous, and the possibility that it might come about without the intervention of any overall controlling intelligence would have seemed incredible. Even when adventurous travelers opened up the first trade routes and the citizens of Europe and Asia first had the chance to sample each other's luxuries, their safe arrival was still so much subject to chance and nature as to make it a source of drama and excitement as late as Shakespeare's day. (Imagine setting The Merchant of Venice in a supermarket.)
In Eastern Europe and the countries that used to belong to the Soviet Union, even after the collapse of their planning systems, there has been persistent and widespread puzzlement that any society could aspire to prosperity without an overall plan. About two years after the break-up of the Soviet Union I was in discussion with a senior Russian official whose job it was to direct the production of bread in St. Petersburg.' 'Please understand that we are keen to move towards a market system,' he told me. 'But we need to understand the fundamental details of how such a system works. Tell me, for example: who is in charge of the supply of bread to the population of London?' There was nothing naive about his question, because the answer ('nobody is in charge'), when one thinks carefully about it, is astonishingly hard to believe. Only in the industrialized West have we forgotten just how strange it is.