I just ate a delicious sandwich.
It was called the blue river brisket, and it had brisket, cheddar cheese, bacon, purple slaw, garlic mayo, and barbecue sauce heated and served on a kaiser roll. With a bowl of broccoli cheddar soup, it was a perfect meal on a dreary and stressful day.
As I write this, I’m at Children’s Hospital in Birmingham, where my younger son is currently undergoing a tonsillectomy. It’s pretty routine, and we’re not worried; however, the logistics are trying as I have classes to teach today and I’m leaving tonight for the Southern Economic Association’s annual conference. To top it off, I made the mistake of skipping breakfast and have been hungry all morning.
In the long run, the soup and sandwich were probably not the best things I could’ve eaten. In the short run, however, it was ideal comfort food. The remarkable fact is that so many people conspired to provide me with a delicious sandwich and a delicious bowl of soup even though they don’t know me, they don’t know the circumstances under which I wanted the sandwich and a bowl of soup, and, while I’m sure they care about my son in some abstract sense, they don’t love him like I do or like they love their own friends and family.
And yet the free(-ish) market directed their concern for themselves and their loved ones so that the best way they could take care of them was to take care of me and my family on a very stressful morning. The ladies who made the sandwich and the soup don’t know me from Adam, and while I’m sure they are concerned about my son in an abstract sense, I doubt they’re going to lose sleep tonight (like I probably will) wondering how he is recovering.
Pushing things back a step, there are a lot of other people involved, as well. I paid for the meal using Apple Pay, which automatically charged it to my Amazon Visa card. There are a lot of people involved in the programming of the software that makes Apple Pay work and a lot of people involved in the manufacture of my iPhone who again probably don’t care very specifically about my family but who are nonetheless helping to bear my burden because of the incentives they face in sort-of-free markets.
The bread, the beef, the cheddar cheese, the barbecue sauce, the slaw, and the soup ingredients all had to get to the hospital-lobby café somehow. Somewhere, there’s a truck driver who will never read this article and who might if anything have open contempt for my family and me should he or she get to know us who nonetheless helped us during our hour of need by getting sandwich ingredients from the source to the café. The people who baked the bread, the people who grew the wheat that became the bread, the people who served breakfast to the farmers who grew and harvested the wheat all had a role in helping me have a very good meal on a very stressful morning.
The market is a symphony of creation, yes, but in this case it is also a symphony of care. In a free market, people can care for one another without necessarily caring about one another. Some people might see this is as a bug rather than a feature, but in light of our moral and cognitive limitations — we have a relatively limited ability to have close friends, for example — I find it remarkable that exchange allows us to secure the services of others with knowledge and talent we don’t have.
In the Bible, we are exhorted to bear one another’s burdens. I’ve long wondered exactly how we discharged this duty. It is relatively obvious when you were talking about people who are in very close moral proximity. When a friend or neighbor has a baby, you take them a casserole. Or you give them a gift card for baby wipes or something like that. When someone you know and love finds himself or herself caught a bit short, you put a few dollars in the collection plate and help them out.
These ways of bearing one another’s burdens are immediate and visible. There are a lot of non-immediate and difficult-to-see ways that we bear one another’s burdens even when those others are not in close moral proximity to us. If you have an insurance policy, you are part of a network of people who are bearing one another’s burdens. If you’re filling out a purchasing order for kaiser rolls for the café in a hospital lobby, you’re bearing other people’s burdens. If you’re making a delicious sandwich, for all you know you’re bearing an unusually heavy burden for the person on the other side of the cash register.
Free markets, of course, have a lot of things going for them. They deliver the goods. We are healthier and wealthier because of what the economist William Baumol called “The Free Market Innovation Machine.” That we are able to relatively easily bear one another’s burdens is one of the underappreciated attributes of free markets.
There are a lot of people in the world who do not know me, probably wouldn’t like me if we ever met, and might roll their eyes at the suggestion that we bear one another’s burdens in a free market. Nonetheless, they are helping me during a bit of a rough patch. And though I may never meet them, I will always be grateful.