The Glory of Manhattan

By Donald J. Boudreaux

No place on earth energizes me as does Manhattan. Of course, all of New York City has real problems: murders, muggings, traffic congestion, rent control, Penn Station’s ugliness. Reporters, pundits, and politicians — left and right — never tire of reminding the public of Gotham’s woes.

Yet these woes don’t come close to being the main lessons to draw from the teeming, pulsing reality of Manhattan’s 1.6 million residents mixing with more than 2 million other people who daily come to this small island to work, study, and play. The main lesson not only goes largely unmentioned, it goes mostly unlearned. This lesson is that the daily, productive life of Manhattan is a glorious testament to the reality of emergent order.

A Small Space Made Large

Begin by observing that Manhattan’s surface area is a puny 22.82 square miles, which is significantly less than half the size of a very long list of American towns and cities — places such as Lafayette, Louisiana;, Opelika, Alabama; and Stockton, California. But of course whatever charms such towns might hold, none of these places hold a candle to Manhattan’s economic vibrancy and productivity.

Among the many reasons for Manhattan’s success is the fact that its actual living and working area is far larger than its geographic surface area. Manhattan’s skyscrapers greatly multiply the surface area on which people on that island live and work. Likewise, NYC’s extensive network of subways, tunnels, and bridges enables a person to commute across the city without disrupting the work, play, or sleep of the many other persons who at each moment occupy the commuter’s precise same latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates.

This literal layering of human activity is made possible not only by the undoubted genius of architects and engineers. Also at work are innumerable unsung and seemingly mundane innovations. Crucial for many bridges and roof slabs is reinforced concrete. High-rise buildings would be impossible without structural steel to keep them standing, metal and PVC piping to conduct rainwater and sewage, and wires to deliver the electricity that powers elevators, water pumps, climate-control systems, lighting, and the Wi-Fi that I’m using now to assist me in the writing of this essay as I sit comfortably 18 stories above East 55th Street.

Just how much productive or playful activity is going on at this moment literally above me and below me I cannot say. I am, however, certain that it’s happening. Yet almost none of these productive or playful persons give a nanosecond of thought to any of the many commonplace marvels of modernity that make their activities possible.

Manhattan Gets Fed

In a few minutes, I’ll safely plummet approximately 200 feet to Manhattan’s surface to decide which of several restaurants, all within a few steps, catches my fancy as a place to enjoy breakfast. A croissant? A bagel with lox? Perhaps an omelet? My options will be abundant.

Whatever option I choose, none of the ingredients in my breakfast will have originated in, or even near, Manhattan — an island not known for its wheat fields or chicken farms. Who harvested the wheat in my toast? Who designed the machine that got from a cow the milk used to make the butter for that toast? Who drove the eggs into Manhattan earlier this morning? Who built the chair in which I’ll sit to enjoy my quotidian feast? Who cooked it? I have no idea. I’ll see only the server. And to receive the services of these and the hundreds of thousands of other strangers whose efforts are required to make my breakfast a reality, I’ll spend no more money than an ordinary American worker today earns in a mere one hour.

It’s Amazing

Yet I’m one of roughly 4 million people who will today go about some business in Manhattan. Like me, each will eat a few meals, drink water, use restrooms, consult their smartphone, and travel not only north, south, east, or west, but also literally up and down. And while by the standards of most places much of Manhattan is indeed crowded, 99.999 percent of these human activities will be coordinated with each other. Even in hyper-crowded Times Square, pedestrians will smoothly pass rather than bump into each other. Ditto for automobiles. Merchants will offer merchandise and meals that consumers voluntarily purchase. Employers will offer jobs that workers voluntarily accept.

Four million people, nearly all strangers to each other, are hurrying about to work and play, and doing so in ways that are remarkably orderly and productive — and all, of course, absent any overall design or direction.

Yes, each business is designed and consciously managed. And each building had an architect. Likewise, most of New York’s road system is the product of conscious design, as was the construction of the subway lines. But the orderly yet breathtakingly complex patterns of daily use of New York’s institutions and infrastructure are undesigned and undesignable. These productive patterns are emergent, or as F.A. Hayek would say, “spontaneous.”

Blind to the Order

A great irony of emergent orders, such as daily life in Manhattan, is that these unplanned orders work so very well and smoothly that we take them for granted. We see only the Manhattan order’s relatively few imperfections: the traffic accident, the armed robbery, the collapsed scaffolding, the potholes.

Too many people notice only these imperfections. And noticing only these imperfections, people remain blind to the beautiful, wonderful, and stupendous order of incessant activities that is planned and designed by no one yet works for the bountiful benefit of everyone.

Of course, Manhattan is hardly the only place in which emergent orders bring prosperity and rich life experiences to the masses. But Manhattan, with its concentrated and bustling population, is perhaps the single best place in the United States for those with willing eyes to witness this order at work.

Go there. Behold crowds of pedestrians making their way down Broadway. Relish the affordable yet delicious meals you enjoy while on an island covered in concrete. Drink in the fact that 4 million people work and live in such close proximity to each other as they manage not only to avoid obstructing each other’s plans, but often to better enable each other to carry out their plans. Celebrate the human creativity and gumption that make this small rock among the most productive and prosperous places on earth. Even if you’re someone who doesn’t enjoy urban life, you cannot help but be amazed by Manhattan.

Sign up here to be notified of new articles from Donald J. Boudreaux and AIER.

Donald J. Boudreaux

Donald J. Boudreaux is a senior fellow with American Institute for Economic Research and with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University; a Mercatus Center Board Member; and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University. He is the author of the books The Essential Hayek, Globalization, Hypocrites and Half-Wits, and his articles appear in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, US News & World Report as well as numerous scholarly journals. He writes a blog called Cafe Hayek and a regular column on economics for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Boudreaux earned a PhD in economics from Auburn University and a law degree from the University of Virginia.