It was a helpless feeling. I’m standing next to my pretty car that won’t move because the clutch slipped (it was my fault entirely but the story is too embarrassing to tell). I had to get my car one half mile down the road to the dealership to get it fixed.
That meant getting it towed. It was a holiday. How is this going to happen?
Then I dialed Gordon’s Towing. Gordon answered. I explained my problem. He said no problem. He was there in less than 10 minutes. He drove up in a huge flat-bed truck. What happened then confuses but impresses me mightly.
The Expert Arrives
He stepped off the truck and grunted a hello. I pointed out which car needed towing. He hopped back in the truck and got to work. He knew exactly where to position the truck. He released the back and down it rolled so that the edge of it was exactly 6 inches away from my front tires. How he got the distance right on the first try is beyond me.
His next step was to examine whether my tiny two-seater (an S2K) had a towing bar. It did not. He went to his truck and grabbed some kind of strap with two steel rings. He crawled under my car and somehow managed to hook a steel cord around it. He then noticed that my car is only about 5 inches above the ground and so fixed the ramp with two boards so that it would not scrape.
Within a few minutes, my car was being pulled up the ramp. His next step had something to do with strapping the two left-side tires with woolen holders (why not the right side?). The whole thing was accomplished so fast. He asked where it was going and I told him. Next thing you know, we arrived at the dealership and he knew exactly where to park it. He reversed the process, took a credit card payment for $85, and drove off to continue his purpose-driven life.
I stood there with my mouth open in astonishment at his skill, precision, speed, agility, and, above all else, his expertise. He said no more than 5 words to me. He was all business, and probably headed to the next person in need.
There I stood as the beneficiary of his lifetime of experience and achievement. He had no idea that day that I would be calling. He didn’t know if anyone would be calling. But he was ready to swing into action on the ringing of his phone. He had never met me nor I him. He was in it for the money, but not that much, if you think about it. But his “selfish” desire for money was not inconsistent with the social service he provided me on that day.
There is no law in effect that private towing services have to exist, that there must be people like Gordon who can manage every situation. There is no central plan, no municipal authority mandating this, no intellectuals running the system from above.
Nothing compelled him to answer that phone. He could easily have declined. And yet it happened anyway, and my whole problem was solved in the blink of an eye. We exchanged services: he gave me an enormous gift of service and I gave him $85 and the problems in my life were suddenly diminished.
What would I have done without him? I now know I can depend on someone out there knowing vastly more about what I need to have done than I could know in years of study. There are probably other towing services, true. But that makes things all-the-more marvelous because there is competition for prices and quality.
Gordon and I inhabit completely different worlds. And yet we came together on this, as complete strangers, to make a mutually beneficial exchange between my need and his skill. I feel sure that I will never see him again. I’m quite sure that he developed no real interest in or appreciation for me as a person. It was pure economics, nothing more. And yet the job got done.
Communities of Enterprise
Had I been living in a state of isolation, I would have to possess a towing truck in addition to every other life skill from growing food, sewing clothing, building shelter, and everything else. It would not be possible. I would never leave the nature of nature. In civilization, I depend on others who can cultivate their own specialization and make their skills available on the market for purchase. We are all strong and competent together because our skills are widely dispersed.
Gordon too benefits from the division of labor, from the people who made his truck to the manufacturers of his towing cords to the phone service he uses to answer calls. In this one exchange, millions upon millions of people were involved in making it possible. Not only that but the technology that enabled him to perfect his skills stretches far back in time. The accumulation of all this knowledge that went into making this possible involves many centuries and many countries, involving billions of people.
Literally the whole of human society from time immemorial was involved in this one exchange, not directly but indirectly through vast amounts of human cooperation and gradual expansion of opportunities to specialize. Adam Smith noticed this phenomenon in the 18th century and concluded that the division of labor is essential for wealth creation; indeed it is the most fundamental factor in making prosperity possible.
The political and economic outlook undergirding the market order is often called individualism because of the central role of human volition in its unfolding. At the same time, this individualism creates a beautiful community of enterprise, one far more reliable, effective, and life-affirming that the false communities that politics assembles for us. We all need each other to live good and prosperous lives. It’s the market that makes this possible. I began the day feeling helpless but discovered that, thanks to the market economy, I’m surrounded by experts who ready to meet every need.