Team USA didn’t win gold medals at the Olympics. Team USA didn’t participate in figure skating, luge, curling, or half pipe. Before you stop reading, let me explain.
Chloe Kim, a snowboarder from California, won gold in the half pipe through her dedication, hard work, and talent. She also won us over with her Twitter feed. The Shibutani twins competed in ice dancing and won bronze for their stellar choreography and coordination. All of the athletes earned a spot to compete under one flag and to win rare, circular stones on a string through their dedication and action.
I’ve been so engrossed by the victories and disappointments of the Winter Olympics that I haven’t gotten much sleep these past two weeks. The Olympics are a glorious pastime where I can live vicariously through athletes of supernatural strength and ability. I cry when they fall and cheer when they succeed. But to economist Ludwig von Mises, the fact that these athletes pursue their own individual goals (though part of a group) is what’s amazing and yet, naturally human.
Mises saw groups not as one collective body, but as many individuals seeking their best interest. While watching the Olympics makes me feel a part of something bigger, something greater than myself, Mises’ insights remind me that Team USA is great because of each athlete’s individual decisions that led them to compete against athletes from around the world.
Individuals act purposively. That’s the idea that Mises spent an entire 881-page book explaining. Most of the time people do not act blindly, but toward a goal or objective. Often the individual doesn’t know all the steps to achieving his goal, but discovers the ways to achieve it over time. Mises emphasized the idea of individual action as a foundation of economics. He believed that we should view the economy, foreign policy, mergers and acquisitions (and Olympic sports teams!) as a compilation of individual, human action.
Together, the members of Team USA acted according to their individual goals and as a result, coordinated as a team to win the most medals. While they all were competing for themselves, they came together to represent USA. Take the Shibutani twins in ice dancing. They had to coordinate their jumps and spins perfectly to achieve high marks. While Maia knew her goals and what she had to do to achieve a perfect skate, she also had to be aware of how her brother, Alex, was skating and what his goals were in order to win. They had to coordinate their best interests in order to win the bronze medal.
Even though you and I are not Olympic athletes (if you are an Olympic athlete reading this, can I get your autograph?!), we participate in the art of coordination all the time. We don’t go to work to achieve the goals of our employers. We go to reach our own goals. Yet, by attempting to satisfy our own goals and interests, we simultaneously act in a way that achieves the goals of the company or organization. Say my goal is to increase the amount of papers I research per day. While this is good for me, this also helps the scholars increase the amount of papers they can write. Increased papers can lead to policy change, name recognition, and the creation of new ideas and solutions across the country. Whether in the market, at home, or on the slopes, our individual goals coordinate to achieve some grander, separate goal together.
The Olympic athletes trained non-stop to achieve fame and glory. But they had to cooperate with others along the way. It was not Team USA that won, but Chloe Kim, Alex and Maia Shibutani, and many others that acted purposively, competed fiercely, and inspired us across the world. It’s not because of the group or organization that we cheer so loudly. It’s because of each individual athlete who reminds us that we too can achieve our goals. If only we act.