You Can Always Depend on the Self-Interest of Strangers: Hotels Edition
By Art Carden
“We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.”-G.K. Chesteron
I’m sitting at a Starbucks in Houston, Texas, where we’re visiting my sister, her husband, and my newborn niece. It’s been a good trip, albeit with one complication: my sons were sick for the first two days of our visit, so we were hesitant to have them around a newborn while they recovered from respiratory issues. What to do?
Amazingly, people have organized themselves into associations and organizations that help us solve exactly the problem we faced. Groups of local strangers–people we’d never met before and who we may never see again–were kind enough to shelter us and feed us a sumptuous breakfast. We were protected from the elements (and comfortably) and fed (and well).
What inspired them to such benevolent offices? Were they aware of our plight, minor though it may seem? Did they wait in anticipation of skittish travelers who didn’t want their potentially-contagious kids around a newborn, all the while thinking of nothing but my niece’s welfare?
Of course not. They were all too willing to feed and shelter us, and perhaps indulge just a bit of irrational fear about spreading infection to a baby, in exchange for the fruit of but a few hours’ labor denominated in money.
Ever since attending a Liberty Fund conference on Hayek about two months ago, I’ve been thinking about Hayek’s insights about markets. Too often, we lose sight of just how incredible this is: strangers who don’t know one another’s preferences, goals, fears, or dreams, are able to cooperate to mutual advantage through voluntary trade. As Hayek notes, the “Great Society” or “catallaxy” doesn’t have its own consciously-chosen goal. Rather, it allows free and responsible people to pursue their own individually-chosen goals. The desk clerk at the hotel, for example, might know nothing of my goals or interests. I knew nothing of hers, and yet she is willing to advance my goals (in this case, spending time with family while keeping sick kids at a safe distance from the baby) if I’m willing to advance hers. General prosperity is the unintended consequence insofar as trades are voluntary.
A wonder? Absolutely, and worthy of wonder.
NB: The Chesteron quote also appears at in “I, Pencil.” The Competitive Enterprise Institute made a series of videos based on I, Pencil” that you can watch here. I was compensated for appearing in them but not for mentioning them in this post. Here’s an article I wrote a few years ago with the same title.