Four Amazing Differences

Four Amazing Differences

Written by Donald J. Boudreaux |
Saturday, July 16, 2022

No one could possibly know – the exact number of persons whose efforts were devoted to producing your smartphone and keeping it operational. But I’m confident that this number is much greater than one million – in fact, it’s likely multiple times greater. When this number is added to the number of strangers whose efforts were devoted to producing your living-room couch, your HVAC system, the latest medicines that you ingested, your automobile, and the commercial-air flight that you’ll next take to visit your parents or to close that business deal, the number of strangers who routinely work for you likely numbers well over a billion.

If there’s a particular purpose for my presence on this earth – other than being a loving and responsible father for my son – that purpose is to teach principles of economics. Even adjusting (as best as I can) for professional bias, I have no doubt that no body of knowledge is more important for understanding society than is economics, with few bodies of knowledge being as important. And the part of economics that, far and away, is most important is economics principles, popularly known as “Econ 101.” Probably as much as 90 percent of the many harmful government policies being pursued or proposed at any moment would grind to a halt if a majority of the populace had a solid grasp of basic economics.

At the beginning of each semester, I – unlike most teachers of economics principles – devote a couple of hours to the task of impressing upon my students (most of whom are still too young to purchase adult beverages) just how very different is the world they know from the world that was known to most of their ancestors. I identify four ways in which the lives of those of us in the modern, capitalist world differ categorically from the lives of almost everyone until just a few centuries ago.

Astonishing Prosperity

The most obvious way in which our lives today differ from those of our pre-capitalist ancestors is that we’re fantastically wealthier. Ordinary people today sleep beneath hard roofs and walk on hard floors in homes equipped with indoor plumbing and electric lighting, and featuring cupboards full of food, closets full of clothing, and garages or driveways full of automobiles. We’re so wealthy that it’s quite plausible that our pets today live materially better lives than did our human ancestors before the industrial age.

Although recounted frequently, this truth about modern standards of living cannot be told too often. We’re so accustomed to our spectacular wealth that we take it for granted. And that which is taken for granted is seldom appreciated and correctly understood.

Reliance on Strangers

A second way in which our lives differ categorically from the lives of nearly all of our ancestors is that we, unlike our ancestors, depend for our survival almost exclusively on strangers. Prior to capitalism, Jones personally helped to produce many of the goods that he or she consumed. Jones likely had a hand directly in the hunt, building the family hut, weaving cloth for the family’s clothing, or tending the crops and animals destined to become the family’s meals. Most of the other goods and services consumed by Jones but not directly produced with his or her labor, were produced by people known personally to Jones, such as the village blacksmith, cobbler, cooper, butcher, tailor, tanner, carpenter, and wheelwright.

Today in stark contrast, we denizens of capitalist economies not only do not personally directly help to produce the goods that we consume, we have no idea of the identities of nearly everyone who did have a hand in producing the goods that we consume.

Read More

Scroll to top