The Market and the Eagles
Or, when Tolkien met Friedman
If you watch The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit trilogies with a clever child, they’ll have a lot of questions about the eagles.
“Why didn’t the eagles just fly the One Ring to Mount Doom?”
“Why didn’t the eagles transport Gandalf everywhere instead of making him ride a horse?”
“Why didn’t the eagles fight at Minas Tirith?”
“Why didn’t the eagles fly Bilbo and the Dwarves straight to the Lonely Mountain?”
“Why didn’t the eagles grab Azog from his command post in the Battle of the Five Armies and drop him to his death?”
There’s even an eagle-centric alternate ending of LOTR:
My standard answer to all these children’s queries is…
Give the eagles a break! The eagles are already doing a ton of great stuff for Middle Earth! They’re giant eagles. Top of the food chain. They could easily just roost safely in their eyries and live out their lives in peace. Yet without asking for the slightest compensation, these heroic birds…
…saved Gandalf at Isengard,
…fought the Nazgul at the Black Gate,
…rescued the Dwarves from the trees when they were surrounded by Goblins and Wargs,
… and delivered the coup de grace at the Battle of the Five Armies.
The eagles aren’t perfect, but they are awesome. Instead of asking the eagles to do even more, how about a little freakin’ gratitude?
“It’s only fiction,” you say? I submit that this is a handy allegory for popular complaints about markets. They offer vastly greater benefits than the eagles of Tolkien. To start, these glorious markets…
…fill our stores with cornucopian wealth,
…create endless new products,
…endlessly improve the products we already have,
…offer great convenience,
…build massive amounts of spacious, comfortable housing,
…pay salaries ten, twenty, a hundred times our physical needs,
…offer a vast range of jobs: the whole continuum from low commitment to high commitment, low risk to high risk, low social interaction to high social interaction, low comfort to high comfort,
…will pay you something to do practically anything,
…incentivize the world’s most creative and industrious people to share their gifts with the world,
…while respecting the principle of voluntary consent. Truly, no one makes you shop at WalMart.
Yet in politics and popular culture, markets gets even less love than the eagles. Instead, we get childish complaints:
“Incomes aren’t equal.”
“Wealth isn’t equal.”
“This product could be better.”
“Why can’t this stuff be free?”
“My pay sucks.”
“My co-workers suck.”
“My boss sucks.”
“We’re so materialistic.”
What makes such complaints about markets so childish?
First, most of them apply at least as well to every other economic system. Actually-existing socialism is anything but equal. Its products are notoriously crummy. The pay stinks. Lots of co-workers and bosses still suck. And the victims of socialist poverty are notoriously “materialistic” because they spend most of their time struggling to fulfill their basic material needs.
Second, the market itself offers practical solutions for many of the complaints. Free immigration and free construction are mighty battering rams against inequality. Don’t like your pay, coworkers, or boss? Find a better match using the First Law of Wing-Walking. Given time and persistence, this Law totally works. Abhor materialism? It’s easier to focus on the finer things in life if the coarser things in life are dirt cheap.
Like Tolkien’s eagles, markets aren’t perfect, but they are awesome.
Yes, you could spend your life condemning either for falling short of maximum performance. But is this not a petulant complaint? The eagles deserve the gratitude of all the free peoples of Middle Earth. Free markets deserve the gratitude of all the peoples of actual Earth.
P.S. Jonathan Blanchard informs me that Tolkien once responded to the eagles challenge: