Styrofoam

by Don Boudreaux on December 25, 2012

in Complexity & Emergence, Innovation, Standard of Living

So this is Christmas, and what have you done?

I want to take a moment to celebrate one of the many brilliant products of modern capitalism, a product now so familiar to us that we yawn at it – and, upon encountering any particular unit of it, throw that unit away almost immediately: styrofoam (or, more generally, polystyrene).

Pictured here is a part of the packaging that contained one of my son’s Christmas gifts.

Styrofoam.  How mundane.  Commonplace.  Boring.  Its market value is so minuscule that American families even of only very modest means (by American standards) routinely toss such items into the trash the moment they unpack the goodies that, during shipment, were protected so securely by the styrofoam pieces.

But consider the enormous ingenuity – the impressive human creativity – that was devoted not only to inventing and then to improving styrofoam, but also to inventing and improving the machines and production processes necessary to manufacture styrofoam in such enormous quantities, yet at such astonishingly low per-unit costs.  Consider also the human creativity and effort involved in arranging for each of (what?) millions or (more likely) billions of individual pieces annually of styrofoam to be fitted perfectly to each of the millions or billions of individual products, and their shipping cases, that are packaged and shipped around the world – all to consumers, and through wholesalers and retailers, few, if any, of whom ever think twice (or even once!) about the great service that styrofoam (and the myriad people who make it possible) provide to ordinary men and women.

Deirdre McCloskey says somewhere that a better name for capitalism is “innovationism” – innovationism unleashed only in societies in which private property rights are at least reasonably secure, freedom of contract is at least reasonably the norm, markets are at least reasonably free, and (importantly) the multitude of bourgeois merchants and accountants and actuaries and laborers and financial experts and… and… and… innovators are accorded at least a reasonable quantum of dignity by society at large.

We denizens of modern society swim, as fish swim in water, in the fruits of market-driven innovationism.  We can and should ponder and debate and consider and learn just how much of this innovationism actually is the product of government action, just how much necessarily is the product of government action, and just how much is, or could plausibly have been, the product of institutions deserving the name “free market.”  Debate away.  But never forget that no one prior to the industrial age enjoyed the benefits of styrofoam, and it is no coincidence that the bulk of inexpensive, “mundane,” beneficial, innovative products such as styrofoam, cardboard, paper towels, aluminum foil, linoleum, canned soup, boxed dry cereals, frozen pizza, laundry detergent, aspirin, toothpaste in a tube… on and on and on I could go… are the products overwhelmingly of modern market economies.  (David Henderson is another who appreciates and celebrates, as I do, the marvels – yes, marvels - of modern innovationism.  And don’t forget Alex Tabarrok’s important take on innovation.)

It’s almost as if each of us in modern capitalist society has a Santa Claus daily dropping gifts on us, gifts made by an uncountably large and hard-working army of creative elves – creative and hard-working elves whose incessant innovation gives us not only ‘wow’ stuff such as ebooks, MP3 players, jumbo jets, Pixar animation, and antibiotics, but also (and very importantly) countless now-thankfully-mundane things such as styrofoam.

Merry Christmas!

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