Carnage? Compared to What?

by Don Boudreaux on June 3, 2010

in Cleaned by Capitalism, Complexity & Emergence, Myths and Fallacies, Standard of Living

Here’s a letter sent a few days ago to the New York Times:

Bob Herbert writes of “the nonstop carnage that has accompanied the entire history of giant corporations” (“An Unnatural Disaster,” May 29).  Every writer is entitled to poetic exaggeration, but Mr. Herbert’s allegation that large corporations have unleashed unremitting sanguinary havoc extends well beyond exaggeration into inexcusable ignorance of history.

Since the dawn of the industrial age, when the modern corporation debuted, life expectancy in the industrialized nations has risen by about 125 percent – and especially so in those countries where modern corporations arose first and where markets were most free.

But perhaps by “giant corporations” Mr. Herbert means only huge firms like Exxon and USX.  His history is still wrong: life expectancy in America since the age of Rockefeller and Carnegie has consistently risen so that it’s now nearly 70 percent higher than it was in 1900.

Of course, Mr. Herbert can deny that corporations played any role in lengthening human lives.  He can also deny that corporate products such as refrigerators, detergents, and machine-washable underwear have cleaned and enhanced our lives.  But I’ll bet that if Mr. Herbert suffered a heart attack he’d not deny himself a ride in an ambulance (manufactured by Ford) using tires (made by Goodyear) and fueled by gasoline (refined by Sunoco) – all while being treated with pharmaceuticals (developed by Pfizer) as a paramedic receives instructions from a physician over a phone (made by Apple, using a signal provided by AT&T).

Sincerely,
Donald J. Boudreaux

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