Economics 101 & Public Square

Your Life Is Not a Jigsaw Puzzle. Neither Is the Economy.

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Do you know what’s great about a jigsaw puzzle? You always know what it’s supposed to look like in the end.

When you start a puzzle, you open up the box, prop it on the windowsill, and make sure all the pieces are picture-side up.  Then you get to work.

Your job is to assemble the pieces to achieve the vision of the puzzle’s designer. The pieces are pre-cut. The outcome is predetermined.

Life is not a jigsaw puzzle. Neither is the economy. Even in our own daily lives, we know little about “what good looks like” when we wake up in the morning. We may have ideas for what needs to happen during the day: finish a project, read three chapters in that book, make dinner, exercise, and take the kids to the zoo. These ideas are based on many assumptions of what we think we can do and many guesses about what external events may or may not occur.

As individuals, we know our own preferences better than any other person, and we still can’t even perfectly plan our day. The reason? We have highly imperfect knowledge of just about everything.

Our Lives Don’t Come with Pre-Cut Puzzle Pieces

I may be determined to finish a project at work when unexpected information arises and makes me go in a different direction. Maybe this new direction is better and improves the project. I could have never foreseen or known this before. This makes me a pretty imperfect master planner of my own projects, yet I can still do this better than any other person. That’s life. My days, and yours, I’m guessing, are filled with unforeseen events like this.

Unforeseen events can be good or bad. When it comes to achieving our goals, they can make us progress, slow down, or find different goals altogether. They show us that we aren’t puzzle assemblers in our own lives. We don’t have pre-cut pieces. God is in charge. He is the master assembler. He can lead us where he wants us to go, and it is our duty to follow him. Even then, we are following him without that picture on the puzzle box. This is why faith, discernment, and obedience are so important.

The Economy Isn’t a Puzzle, Either

In my booklet, Be Fruitful and Multiply, I talk about how the economic way of thinking is important for making God-pleasing decisions. Our imperfect knowledge is one of the very reasons for this. We don’t know many things we need to know to make productive plans for our own lives. Neither does anyone else. Thus we need a social order that helps us to overcome our limitations both in our knowledge and our capabilities.

Markets do this. Markets are the means of growth for individuals who have highly imperfect knowledge, but know better than anyone else how to improve their current situations. These individuals are also highly limited in what they can do. They come together through voluntary exchange to overcome (although not perfectly) knowledge and capability problems.

Every single day I need to eat breakfast. It’s never a surprise. When I wake up, my body tells me to feed it. I must plan for it every single day. The problem I face is that I am very limited in being able to produce breakfast on my own. I also want different things for breakfast from time to time.

The market process helps me get breakfast. I go to the grocery store and pick out a few things. Instant oatmeal one day, Greek yogurt the next. The market allows me to rely on strangers to get my breakfast, too. It allows you to do the same, but perhaps you hate yogurt and oatmeal. No problem. Sellers see that everyone has different tastes, so there are literally thousands of options to satisfy your breakfast needs and tastes.

The Best Human Puzzle-Assembler Doesn’t Exist

The economy is simply the market on a large scale. Even in this seemingly simple example of our universal need for breakfast, we can see that there is no pre-determined picture of what a “good” breakfast is for any of us. No one master planner could ensure that we all get the breakfast that meets our own unique desires and tastes. There is no human puzzle master.

We need to be very aware of this when we hear political rhetoric suggesting that the economy is a puzzle. If it is, then our job in elections is to vote for the best puzzle-assembler. This requires finding a super-human person who has no knowledge problems, no production problems, and no ability to be corrupted.

We can make the best God-pleasing decisions when we submit to God, the author and finisher of our faith (Heb. 12:1-2), who is the only one who knows what the picture should look like. When we do this we stop looking to economic or political leaders to assemble the puzzle, and we trust God to use our lives to assemble the picture for us.

Editor’s Note: Read more about how the economic way of thinking helps us make wise decisions in stewarding God’s resources in Be Fruitful and Multiply: Why Economics is Necessary for Making God-Pleasing Decisions.

Help more people learn about the biblical and economic principles that lead to flourishing! Support IFWE today. 

On “Flashback Friday,” we take a look at some of IFWE’s former posts that are worth revisiting. This post was previously published on May 30, 2016.

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