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How we make sense of an incredibly complex world Chapter 1

Most of the advantages of social life, especially in its more advanced forms which we call “civilization,” rest on the fact that the individual benefits from more knowledge than he is aware of.

Friedrich Hayek (1960). The Constitution of Liberty.
In Ronald Hamowy (ed.), The Constitution of Liberty, XVII
(Liberty Fund Library, 2011): 73.

Recent innovations have allowed people to read materials using a wide variety of mediums, including iPads, computers, and even phones. But the original and still most familiar format is paper and ink. Yet the complexity of the coordination required to allow people to read even in this simple format is hard to believe. It illustrates one of Hayek’s most profound insights: the ability of society to organize itself based on the pursuit of individual interests.

You are now reading words that, for many of you, are transmitted through the medium of two of society’s most familiar products: paper and ink. These products are so common that we take them for granted; their existence seems to be as natural a part of our daily reality as does the force of gravity. And ink and paper are so inexpensive that they are often available free of charge. (When your mail arrives today, it will likely contain several catalogs and flyers advertising this clothing store or that supermarket. The cost of printing these mailings is so low that merchants daily send them out by the jumbo-jet load, all free of charge to those of us who receive them.)

And yet the people whose efforts, skills, and specialized knowledge, and the detailed information that went into producing the very ink and paper now before you, number in the millions. The printed words you are reading were composed by me, the author of this volume. But without the help of millions of other people from around the world, nearly all of whom are total strangers to me and to you, this modest book—the very printed words now before your eyes—would be impossible.

Consider the ink. Where does it come from? Its colour comes from a dye made from chemicals that were extracted from roots, berries, or bark. Who found those roots, berries, or bark? That person had to know which specific roots, berries, or bark to find. Most roots, berries, and bark won’t work. And just how are the colouring chemicals extracted from this vegetation? Today that extraction is done through a complex process involving a mix of industrial chemicals and complicated machinery. The dye is then mixed with water, resins, polymers, stabilizers, and preservatives.