Boudreaux on Prosperity Pools
By David Henderson
With important exceptions, such as antibiotics, commercial air travel, air conditioning, and the Internet, most of the goods and services that define our modern prosperity are akin to Pool Noodles. Each one, individually, adds only a minuscule amount of well-being–or what economists call “utility”–to our total human experience. Each is akin to a drop of water in a large swimming pool: add a single drop of water to a swimming pool and, the laws of physics inform us, the water level of that pool will be higher than it would be without that drop of water. But good luck trying to detect the effect of that single drop of water on the pool’s water level.
This is from Donald J. Boudreaux, “The Prosperity Pool,” the Econlib Feature Article for April.
This brings me to my favorite example because I have similar memories:
The shampoo in your shower is in a plastic bottle. Fifty years ago that shampoo was likely in a glass bottle. I remember cutting my foot badly, sometime in the early 1970s, on a piece of glass from a bottle of shampoo that I had dropped and broken while I was showering. Fortunately, an inexpensive antibacterial ointment and Band-Aids ensured that the wound had no serious consequences.
One of the things that distinguishes Don from most other economists, including even some free-market economists, is his appreciation for those who created the things we value. Here’s my favorite paragraph:
On the other hand, because our overall volume of prosperity dwarfs each instance of wealth production, each such instance seems as insignificant to our prosperity as does each drop of water to the water level in a swimming pool. Intellectuals and politicians then find it easy to treat business people with contempt. As a former university colleague of mine sneeringly said of a businessman some years ago: “He sells toilet parts!” This philosophy professor could not imagine a more contemptible occupation.