A Small Addition to the Prosperity Pool

by Don Boudreaux on December 26, 2014

in Growth, Innovation, Standard of Living, Trade

Here’s a photo of part of the inside of a parking garage at Tyson’s Corner shopping center in northern Virginia.

GetFileAttachmentNotice the red and green lights on the ceiling.  They’re were installed just a few weeks ago, but despite their festive glow, they’re not (only) for the holidays (although they do come in especially handy in November and December).  Instead, these lights indicate which parking spots are occupied and which are empty.  Red means occupied; green means empty.  Finding a parking space is now a bit easier and less frustrating.

Shoppers at this mall are not charged to park in this garage, yet self-interested merchants (through the mall’s operator) nevertheless spent lots of money to install this fancy lighting system that improves people’s lives.

The fact that this improvement in people’s standard of living is itself very small – too small to be registered noticeably in any official statistics – does not make it unreal.  Just as an additional drop of water into a large swimming pool doesn’t noticeably register on instruments designed to measure the volume of water in the pool, each of most of the improvements in our living standards doesn’t ‘register.’  With relatively rare exceptions – such as affordable smart phones, hi-def televisions, Lasik surgery, wi-fi, and digitally remastered Beatles recordings 🙂 – nearly all of the benefits that we moderns enjoy are the accumulation of very tiny, incremental improvements in consumption and life options.  Our prosperity pool grows mostly through countless small additions.


While this new lighting system is itself small, who doubts that it brings real improvement to the lives of many people?  Yet who can name the person who thought of installing this system?  Who can name its chief designer?  I can’t.  These innovative and productive people are anonymous to the great majority even of this mall’s most frequent patrons, yet these innovative and productive people improve the lives of many others.  No one will name a road after, or build statues to honor, such innovators and producers.  But we regularly name roads and build statues to honor people who destroy wealth.  No doubt, for example, some future park or parkway (or both) in Ohio will bear the name “Sherrod Brown” to honor one of that state’s current U.S. senators.  This despite the fact that Brown is forever pressing for trade restrictions – brute government force that, in effect, makes shopping less pleasant and makes most people poorer.

Darn shame.


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