Prosperity through tools

What is wealth, or rather, what is the point of wealth? Wealth is the promise of the ability to obtain our wants and desires with minimal effort. In general those that produce much with little effort are wealthier than those that produce little with great effort. And how does one go about producing much with little effort? With tools. Tools make the difficult easy and the impossible possible. Tools are the reason we don’t spend most of our lives simply trying to obtain our next meal. Tools are the reason we have at the beginning of the 21st century a higher standard of living than we did at the beginning of the 20th century or any period prior to that. Increasing wages and increasing standard of living are a direct result of improvements in the efficiency of our tools. Wages did not rise because of unions or the minimum wage, they rose because our tools became more productive.

To those that believe unions or government can force higher wages absent improvements in productivity, please consider this scenario: A bakery employees two people and they make by hand 20 loaves in 12 hours. They are paid $1/hour, or $24 for the pair per day in wages. The bakery sells the loaves for $2 each so it can make up to $40/day, or a net $16 in profit. Now suppose the two employees join a union that demands they be paid $1.50/hour and the bakery has no choice but to agree. Wage costs have now gone to $36/day and to maintain the 40% margin it must now charge $3/loaf. There are three possible outcomes: (1) the public can no longer afford to buy the loaves and the bakery goes out of business (involuntary closure), (2) the bakery tries to operate with a lower margin but quickly finds there are more profitable ventures than baking and since all other bakeries have the same new cost structure all bakeries close (voluntary closure) and an entire industry ceases to exist in the market or (3) the customers accept a higher cost…which then compels them to join unions to demand higher wages from their employers, who in turn raise their prices until all prices spiral upward until a new equilibrium is reached of higher wages AND higher prices.* So ask yourself, what was the point? Either businesses are driven to close their doors (leading to unemployment) or the end result is entirely neutral (wages go up 3 fold and costs go up 3 fold).

Here is how better tools make everyone wealthier. The bakery purchases a new fangled gadget that allows the two employees to make 200 loaves a day. It can now afford to charge only 28¢/loaf while still doubling profit. The employees continue making $12/day but because they are so much more productive the bakery offers them the option of only working 8 hours for the same $12 ($1.50/hour). Because bread costs have gone down everyone in society has more disposable income. The employees are working fewer hours and earning more per hour and the bakery is earning more as well. Everyone wins (society, employees and employer) and no coercion from the state was necessary. Now repeat that in multiple other industries over many years and what you see is an increasing standard of living and wealth. Everyone’s condition is improved over what it otherwise would have been. Some believe that it is mere “high paying” jobs that make society wealthy, but unproductive high wage jobs can do nothing to raise society’s standard of living. I will close with a quote  (attribution varies but the sentiment is valid nevertheless) that crystallizes this sentiment: “While touring China, a businessman came upon a team of nearly 100 workers building an earthen dam with shovels. The businessman commented to a local official that, with an earth-moving machine, a single worker could create the dam in an afternoon. The official’s curious response was, “Yes, but think of all the unemployment that would create.” “Oh,” said the businessman, “I thought you were building a dam. If it’s jobs you want to create, then take away their shovels and give them spoons!”

* For my Austrian economics friends I am glossing over the “supply of money” point so as not to overly detract from my main argument, but for those uninitiated in the core logic of Austrian economics here are more details on the various paths Scenario 3 can take: Of course with point (3) all prices can only rise if the government prints more dollars… in a hard money economy where the supply of money remains constant some prices would go up and others must necessarily go down thus potentially driving those businesses to close shop and their employees to become unemployed. To simplify the supply of money argument imagine the following: You have $10 and there are 4 vendors each selling their wares for $2.50. You are able to buy from all 4. But if they all demanded $5 for their wares then you would only be able to buy from two of them… you would choose the ones you find most valuable and the other two would simply not receive the sale. Repeating that multiple times means those businesses must close as they have no sales. But some could stay open if for example two raise their price to $4, then the other two could obtain sales if they dropped their price to $1 ($4x 2 + $1 x 2 = $10). If they can stay in business on $1 they will survive but if not then they will go out of business. A real world example wherein prices were driven up but vendors were not permitted to drop their prices was with minimum wage laws, these include such services such as milkmen, full-service gas, door men, they simply cease to exist because no one is willing to pay an amount for that service that will cover the government mandated minimum wage that must be incurred to provide that service. Now although these out of work employees would increase the labor supply and drive labor costs down somewhat (to the extent there was still non-union labor in existence, if all were unionized then they would simply remain unemployed and would have to start their own businesses to fend for themselves in a new “underground” union-free economy). To the extent there was not 100% union coverage of the workforce non-union wages would be driven down, i.e. the gains of the union are offset by the losses of everyone else. But even with this net 0 in wages for society there would still be a net loss to society in that the goods and services supplied by those businesses that closed are removed from society and thus it is a net loss to society… the value they formerly produced simply no longer exists.


2 thoughts on “Prosperity through tools

  1. An interested friend

    While I completely agree in principle, the tougher issues are the barriers (government created and promulgated) to the small business owners. We libertarians often talk of the small business owner in the abstract, small town in the la-la-land with no oppressive government.

    The baker with the 2 employees trying to make a living is having to live in the US, complete with incredible roadblocks to success. The baker has not only to get a license in their city/county/state, but then in many states will have to certify that they have completed training to comply with OSHA rules.

    They not only have to compete with the baker down the street with the new-fangled machine that 2 employees can use to make 200 loaves, but increasingly with the new-fangled machines that their Asian competitors can use with 1 employee to make 2000 loaves per day (or more). In an idealized market it would be absurd to try to deliver bread half way around the globe, but in our market completely corrupted and dominated by “crony capitalism” it makes complete sense.

    I believe that most free people would prefer to buy a fresh loaf from their neighbor than a week-old-imported loaf from China. However, given the government roadblocks that actually make it more expensive for your neighbor to sell you a loaf of bread than for you to get a stale one from half way across the globe, what choice do most people have?

    The bottom line is that I am very pessimistic about our system and even more pessimistic about our ability to get libertarian ideals accepted widely.

  2. Greg Post author

    Yes, I agree with your comments, but this was merely an attempt to illustrate the general concept to those that have not been exposed to such ideas or thought about it in any meaningful way (notice I left out even the rent and taxes paid by the shopkeeper, etc). Your points have more to do with a free (or not so free) market operates, whereas I was just trying to illustrate that w/o better and better tools we’d all still be out in the fields plowing by hand.

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