Last night I stumbled across a program on the Discovery Channel called “Naked and Afraid”. The basic premise of this reality television series goes something like this: take two successful young people from the United States – opposite genders to increase the sense of impropriety – strip them naked and drop them in the wilderness somewhere (think African savanna or Caribbean desert island), where they have to survive for 21 days. All they are allowed is one item each from the outside world; most people choose a machete (which a priori makes the exercise unfair).
The episode I watched took place in the jungles of southern Nicaragua and the protagonists were a vegetarian hippie who might have been a school teacher and a fellow who could have been a manager at a sporting goods store.
To be sure, this program is tabloid TV at its most sensational; representing everything that is wrong with American reality television. Nevertheless the lesson I took from this show was a little different perhaps than others; I found it to be a blistering critique of central planning and a full throated defense of spontaneous order – Adam Smith’s invisible hand.
Let me explain.
The two people chosen for this adventure were what we would consider “normal”, sophisticated Americans. They had at least high school if not college education, they read books, they discuss philosophy, and they know how to operate multiple complicated technological devices like smartphones, computers, coffee makers and vehicles. They know the law; how to drive, how to pay taxes, how to vote and the importance of the separation of powers. They can probably recite whole tracts of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. They live in nice houses which are climate controlled (for summer and winter), and wear nice clothes which they probably wash and iron themselves. They care for their health; they exercise on sophisticated machines and eat right by counting food groups and calories and monitor their blood pressure on electronic devices and take vitamins. They will birth babies with little to no risk and will even have an essential organ replaced if the need arises. They live the fullest existence of the top 1% in the history of humanity.
Yet take these amazing people, strip them naked and drop them on a desert island with only a machete and instantly they become useless. They cannot figure out how to clothe themselves and so run around with nothing on (except perhaps a banana leaf tied in an appropriate place). They cannot find water, and if they are lucky enough to stumble across some they cannot figure out how to transport it from place to place. One fellow wasted two days chopping down a palm tree with a machete (which he was lucky enough to have, because he could never have had the skills to mine the iron and smelt it and sharpen it to make one on his own) only to realize that the coconuts he’d had his eye on were not ripe and had no milk (and now never would, because the tree was gone). They cannot find food; they spend their days chasing around after a tiny lizard or throwing rocks at fish in the ocean in the hopes of bludgeoning one, to eat it raw squatted on the beach. They have no shelter, usually cramming themselves into a cave; and cannot ward off the mosquitoes or the bugs or the wild animals. They descend into a smelly, hungry, paranoid, tired mess.
These, the titans of the world’s greatest civilization, are utterly useless.
I am reminded here of the essay by Leonard Read, “I Pencil”. In this essay Read uses the pencil as an example of the marvels of the division of labor. “…I (the pencil) can teach this lesson better than can an automobile or an airplane or a mechanical dishwasher because—well, because I am seemingly so simple. Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.” As Read eloquently describes in his essay, though we all use pencils without thinking twice about them, nobody in the world could singlehandedly make one. Growing the wood, cutting it, processing it, filling it with graphite (which must be mined and prepared); covering it with paint (which must be chemically engineered for the right color and texture) – nobody has the faintest idea how to make this all happen.
Our adventurous colleagues in “Naked and Afraid” are the living, breathing, hungry, sunburned proof of this immutable fact; if proof is still required.
Yet despite their (and admittedly my own) uselessness, look at the amazing things that the division of labor – facilitated by money (as a means of exchange which both is a unit of measure and a store of value) – has given to the world. A spontaneous order, guided by Adam Smith’s invisible hand, governs the provision of the basic needs and most elaborate wants of a diverse and ever-changing world. It has taken people who would otherwise starve in the wilderness and has given them cable TV, so they can watch other people starve in the wilderness from the comfort of their air-conditioned homes.
The central planners wish to deny this; repeating as they always do that there is a better way. But “Naked and Afraid” proves them wrong. Because if you take these two sophisticated Americans – who are educated and nuanced and are probably lovely people – and ask them to plan a system to meet the needs and wants of society, giving them power to decide over the livelihoods of others through centrally planned mechanisms, they would do no better than they did in the Nicaraguan rain forest. This is not their fault; they just don’t have all the information, because it is simply impossible to acquire. And herein lies the secret of our wonderful spontaneous order; the ability of all men and women to collaborate through the division of labor inherent in the market economy, exchanging their best for the best of their neighbor, allows us to collectively produce things through cooperation that would be impossible alone.
And isn’t this what the planners say they are after in the first place?
Lest anybody say I am being judgmental to those brave enough to face the elements in their altogether; I assure you I don’t claim to be any better. Put me “Naked and Afraid” in the middle of Virunga forest and I’d be eaten by a rabbit on the first day. Acknowledging this makes me even more grateful for our free-market system and the invisible hand that makes my life so much easier than it otherwise would be.