We’re so immersed in the benefits of a market economy that I fear we sometimes fail to notice what a marvel capitalism is.
Today’s Wall Street Journal points to yet another of capitalism’s benefits. A growing number of very, very fancy colleges with very, very talented professors and very, very expensive tuition are offering their course materials online for free.
MIT, for example, “posts the syllabus and class notes for more than 1,500 courses online for anyone who wants them.” By next November, it will “publish materials from virtually all 1,800 of its courses across all its schools.” Notre Dame posts materials for eight courses, “including everything from class plans, links to required readings, lecture notes and homework assignments.” It aims to offer 30 free online courses over the next two years. Yale “has announced it will produce digital videos of undergraduate lecture classes and make them available free to the public.” Seven such courses are currently being taped and will be posted next fall. Bryn Mawr has similar plans in the works.
Just think, a vast amount of knowledge — knowledge that has been organized into a useful format and given the stamp of approval of a fancy school — is becoming available for free to anybody who’ll take it. If you stop and ponder it a second, it’s sort of startling.
But then we see this sort of thing all the time. We can flip on our TVs and watch, for free, some very high-quality programming that has been specifically designed to appeal to our senses of humor and natural curiousities. Of course, we have to sit through some commercial advertisements, but even those are designed to entertain us — and they inform us as well.
Why do the creators of this information and entertainment offer it as a freebie? Perhaps a few of them (Steve Bainbridge?) are motivated by a desire to propagate learning and art. Most, though, are trying to sell something. With TV, that motivation’s obvious. It’s also behind the colleges’ online learning initiatives. The WSJ explains:
[S]chools aren’t interested only in the public good: Schools say that offering materials online can draw in potential applicants curious about what an actual course looks like. An MIT survey of users showed that about a third of freshmen who were aware of the site before attending said it made a significant impact on their decision to enroll.
Thus, Adam Smith’s old adage rings true once again: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” That’s the wonder of the capitalist system — it can take people’s natural selfishness and turn it into social surplus: from entertainment programming that unites a nation (think how American Idol and The Office have boosted our sense of national community) to free high-quality education for folks who, for whatever reason, could never go to a fancy college.
Perhaps it’s silly to find profundity in this WSJ article. I admittedly slept poorly last night and am a bit over-caffeinated. I’m comforted, though, by the fact that some very smart people who thought long and hard about the capitalist system had similar wonder moments.
Hayek, for example, took time to “marvel” at the elegance of the price mechanism:
I have deliberately used the word “marvel” to shock the reader out of the complacency with which we often take the working of this [price] mechanism for granted. I am convinced that if it were the result of deliberate human design, and if the people guided by the price changes understood that their decisions have significance far beyond their immediate aim, this mechanism would have been acclaimed as one of the greatest triumphs of the human mind.
Similarly, Frederic Bastiat had what I would classify as a capitalist wonder moment when he sat back and observed how peacefully Parisians slept, confident that free exchange would provide their needs. In Chapter 18 of Economic Sophisms he wrote:
On coming to Paris for a visit, I said to myself: Here are a million human beings who would all die in a few days if supplies of all sorts did not flow into this great metropolis. It staggers the imagination to try to comprehend the vast multiplicity of objects that must pass through its gates tomorrow, if its inhabitants are to be preserved from the horrors of famine, insurrection, and pillage. And yet all are sleeping peacefully at this moment, without being disturbed for a single instant by the idea of so frightful a prospect. On the other hand, eighty departments have worked today, without co-operative planning or mutual arrangements, to keep Paris supplied. How does each succeeding day manage to bring to this gigantic market just what is necessaryâ€”neither too much nor too little? What, then, is the resourceful and secret power that governs the amazing regularity of such complicated movements, a regularity in which everyone has such implicit faith, although his prosperity and his very life depend upon it? That power is an absolute principle, the principle of free exchange.
Sometimes it’s good to be astounded.
UPDATE: I just checked Bainbridge’s site and I see (here) that even he is trying to sell something. I suppose I should have heeded the second half of the Adam Smith statement quoted above: “…We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.”