The human body is truly a wonder. Right now your body is digesting the Big Mac and fries you had for lunch, replacing the damaged and dead cells from the paper cut you got this morning, fighting off the cold virus your boss gave you with a friendly handshake, and accomplishing a myriad of other necessary actions all without your having to think about it. This frees you up to read today’s Dilbert comic when you should be reading that overdue report sitting on your desk.
These automatic actions take place because of the miracle of homeostasis — the automatic actions your body juggles to keep you neither too hot nor too cold, neither too thirsty nor too hungry. Since there are too many homeostatic controls to review in the space of this article, let’s focus on just one: blood sugar. While you may enjoy a Big Mac, your cells would have a hard time recognizing it as usable food. Your cells want something simpler like glucose, a simple sugar and the basic food source for your body. The circulatory system provides the means for transporting glucose to your cells, keeping them well-fed and ready to do a good day’s work. Your body would prefer a steady glucose level in the blood to keep everything working well, but unless you graze constantly throughout the day, your body experiences times of high and low glucose levels.
When the level of glucose in your bloodstream is high, your pancreas produces higher levels of insulin. Insulin is an enzyme that converts glucose into glycogen, which is stored by the body, lowering the overall level of glucose in your blood. When glucose levels are low, your pancreas produces a different enzyme–glucagon. This enzyme converts some of the stored glycogen back into glucose, raising your blood sugar level. These two enzymes, insulin and glucagon, are produced by the pancreas automatically as your blood sugar level fluctuates during the day. Unless you are diabetic, a member of the medical field, or just good at remembering your Biology notes, you were probably unaware of the critical function your pancreas fulfills. If you knew this already, you can get bonus points by pointing to your pancreas right now. Wrong. Over there. Yeah. That’s it.
The wonder of the body is that necessary processes like the insulin/glucagon battle take place automatically, whether you think about them or not. And it’s a good thing that we don’t have to think about these functions. The chemistry necessary to turn those two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, and a sesame seed bun into the glucose your body needs (minus the icky bits your body doesn’t need) is a chemist’s nightmare. How long would it take you to break normal table sugar (and water) into glucose if you had to do the following chemical reaction manually?
C12H22O11 + H2O —> C6H12O6 + C6H12O6
Now aren’t you glad that your body does this automatically for you? I know I am.
So what happens if your body cannot keep your blood sugar levels balanced? In short, you die. If the level of glucose in your blood drops too low, you can fall into a coma; if it rises too high, your body’s organs and cells will be damaged. People who are diabetic fail to produce the insulin the body needs to drop the high levels of glucose in the blood to normal levels. Commonly, diabetics will have eye, foot, kidney, skin, and nerve problems caused by the elevated levels of glucose in their blood. Some may reduce the level of glucose through diet and exercise, but for many, injections of insulin are necessary to keep their blood sugar levels in check. Sadly, these injections are neither as fast nor as efficient as the automatic insulin/glucagon interactions that take place in a non-diabetic body. Given the choice, would you rather manage your insulin/glucagon levels manually through injections, or automatically through normal homeostatic functions?
So, what does this all have to do with Marx? Glad you asked.
Very similar to the automatic interactions taking place in your body as your blood sugar levels soar and sink, the marketplace reacts to the scarcity and surplus of goods and services. For instance, if there are too few pizza shops in a neighborhood, the scarcity will prompt Pizza Hut, Papa Murphy’s, Domino’s, and others to move in and provide the scrumptious wheels of cheese-covered flavor in demand by the people. If there are too many pizza shops in the town selling overpriced circles of cardboard-flavored dough, automatic market forces will cause some to go away. Since Papa Murphy’s is my favorite, I hope that is one shop that will stick around, and I will do my economic best to make that so. The wonder of the open market system is the way that supply and demand tend to balance each other, in much the same way your body keeps your glucose levels balanced.
The free market is very similar to the homeostatic functions of the body. Without anyone having to think about it (other than ivory-tower economists, and they are an insular group, anyway), the market will react as different forces act upon it. Adam Smith called this automatic governing process of free markets the “invisible hand” in his 1776 book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Just as your body is best served to have the blood sugar levels controlled automatically by the pancreas working invisibly inside you (further down and a bit more to the right. Yep, right there), the invisible hand of market forces works best when the force of government is kept out of it. Government intervention is similar to the injections of insulin. While it can be of short-term benefit to the person involved, it is neither as fast nor as efficient as the automatic actions of the pancreas.
This is a basic reason why I distrust Marxism and any other heavy-handed government intrusion into markets. In the many examples of Marxism practiced over history, the bureaucrat-led governments have been obsessed with controlling everything about the economy of their countries. Like a diabetic person shooting up more insulin than necessary so she can eat an extra piece of cake at dinner, Marxist governments feel the need to tweak and dictate how their economies will run. The Soviet Bloc could mandate how many blue baby shoes were produced each year in the factories, but having visited stores in East Berlin before the Wall came down, I can tell you just how poorly those bureaucrats did at juggling the supply of shoes for their people’s demand. Marxism is to economies as insulin injections are to diabetics. It provides a short-term stopgap, but people are much better off when the process can be automatic, not manually governed. Just as it is easier to let your body digest your Big Mac automatically, so is it easier to allow the “invisible hand” to control a free market. Doing it manually requires a degree of intelligence and control that is beyond the scope of any bureaucrat. If you don’t believe me, ask someone born under the rule of Stalin or Brezhnev if this isn’t the case.
And don’t try to tell me that Marxism hasn’t been really tried yet. The last hundred years are sufficient evidence that it has, and it is a miserable failure. But that’s an article in and of itself. More on the failure of Marxism later.