Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH — Even capitalism’s biggest fans have to admit that industrialization has made our world dirtier. At least that seems to be conventional wisdom. Dr. Donald Boudreaux, professor of economics at George Mason University, challenges that notion. Earlier this year, he spoke to the John Locke Foundation’s Shaftesbury Society on the theme “Cleaned By Capitalism.” Boudreaux discussed the topic with Mitch Kokai for Carolina Journal Radio. (Click here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)
Kokai: We have heard this for years and years. People have said, “Well, whether you like [capitalism] or not, it’s made our lives a lot dirtier. There’s a lot more pollution because of all of this stuff happening through capitalism.”
Kokai: You say, “That’s not the right way to look at this.”
Boudreaux: That’s exactly right. One of the great benefits of capitalism is that it has sanitized and cleaned our lives in ways that are so familiar to us that we take them for granted. You think of basic things — indoor plumbing. And this is an obvious one. Our pre-industrial ancestors — unless they were kings and queens, and most of us are not descended from royalty — they did not have indoor plumbing. In fact, even kings and queens, of course, did not have indoor plumbing of the quality that ordinary America has today, in 2012.
We have indoor plumbing. We have automatic flushers. We have household disinfectants. We have inexpensive soaps. We have hard roofs over our head and hard floors in our houses. We have automobiles that we travel in, so we no longer have to have animal dung on the streets where we live. We have screens for keeping insects out of our houses. We have air conditioning to keep the interior of our houses, you know, free of insects and the temperature at a comfortable, safe level. We have all sorts of cleanliness and sanitation brought to us by capitalism — brought to us by the profit motive, in most cases.
And it’s true that the production of these things has its own emissions. You know, we do have more pollution of the sort that people today think of. But my point is that those kinds of pollutants — I call them big, macro pollutants — you know, carbon dioxide emissions is, today, the big one — they’re real. Whatever is the appropriate approach to them — however much we want to worry about them, whatever is the appropriate policy you agree with in terms of addressing them — I don’t get into that. I’m just saying people have to realize that those pollutions that we worry about today have to be offset against the benefits that the products that produce those pollutions generate, and those products themselves, by and large, keep us cleaner — far cleaner, far healthier — our lives far more pleasant than anyone who lived in a pre-industrial society.
Kokai: I can imagine some people hearing this and saying, “Wait a minute. All of those things that you spelled out as advantages of capitalism, those are actually the benefits of regulation. Once people started getting into the mode of doing all these dirty and capitalistic things, government came in and regulated, and that’s why we’re cleaner — not because of capitalism.”
Boudreaux: There has been regulation. In my view, most regulation comes pretty much after the fact. A government, particularly in a democratic society, is only going to impose and enforce regulation when it’s affordable. But one of the greatest single cleaned-by-capitalism products that I like to talk about is underwear. We don’t think of underwear as an anti-pollution device. But when the Industrial Revolution first got going, in Britain, it was in textiles. And so, for the first time, ordinary human beings had access to tightly woven, inexpensive textiles.
And you know what they did with that, the first thing? They used it as underwear. For the first time in human history, ordinary men and women were able to change the clothes that were next to their body and wash them vigorously, to disinfect them and clean them. That had nothing to do with regulation. This was ordinary people saying, “You know, I like the fact — I’m not rich enough yet to buy several changes of clothing that are worn on the outside, but I now do have enough money to buy underwear.” Because these textile mills made underwear affordable, and people bought underwear.
A nonideological economic historian at Harvard, David Landes, makes this case. I get this from his 1998 book called The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. So, you know, this is one of the unsung benefits of the Industrial Revolution, that it cleaned people of the bacterial pollution that we suffered for so many generations upon end. Clean underwear. No regulation involved there.
Kokai: Moving forward, if capitalism has led to all of these benefits for us in terms of making us cleaner — healthier, by implication — does that mean that we probably ought to look to capitalism for the best solutions for these other pollution … problems that we have now?
Boudreaux: Yeah, I think so. And even in terms of dealing with the big macro pollutants, I would prefer more market-oriented approaches than more command-and-control approaches. But that’s not what my talk here is about. I just want to create in people a perspective, a realization, of the reality that the capitalism that’s too often criticized as being a source of increasing pollution, in fact, is not. It has substituted some forms of pollution for other forms of pollution. One way to put it is: We are lucky today to be able to worry about the kinds of pollutants we worry about.
Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t worry about them. That’s a separate question, as is the question of how do we deal with them. But I think it’s pretty much unambiguous when you contemplate history. We are lucky to worry about species lost, global warming, and the other kinds of pollutions that concern us today, because we are now relieved from worry about the tuberculosis and the bacterial infections that caused diarrhea that killed our children, and the infestations of pests that wiped out crops — the fact that we didn’t have hard roofs over our heads, and the thatched roofs harbored terrible amounts of insects, and they caught fire — the fact that we have clean clothes, indoor plumbing.
These things we have to understand [with] historical perspective. They are a great benefit of capitalism, and I think it’s appropriate to say that they are a source of anti-pollution. So whatever pollution capitalism is causing, it has to be weighed against the others. So it has given us the good fortune to worry about less important forms of pollutants because it has gotten rid of the most important ones.
Kokai: Do you think the key to this is that people have not put the issue in proper perspective?
Boudreaux: I think that’s exactly right. The world we live in is, it’s so common to us in the West — you know, the fact that the roof over your head is not thatched, but it’s hard; the fact that the floor that you walk on is not dirt but is some hard surface that you can vacuum; the fact that when you turn on the water, you get hot and cold running water in the bathtub; the fact that you use a toilet that flushes. These things are so common to us, we just — it’s like water to a fish: We just take it for granted. And when you take things for granted, you don’t reflect on them as much as you should. And the point of my talk here is to create a reflection on these things that often go unreflected.