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Earthworms vs. Earthquakes

Charles Darwin famously observed his backyard. Over the span of several years, he noticed that the soil had been completely overturned – by earthworms. This turning of his soil resulted from a series of individually minuscule acts of individual earthworms, each crawling and eating and in the process moving tiny particles of soil ever so minutely. The overall consequence is a changed (and healthier) backyard. Subtract any one act – subtract any one earthworm – from the yard and the extent of the soil-turning appears no different than if this act, or this earthworm, remained on the scene. But the sum total of each of these individually almost-irrelevant acts is significant in both its extent and importance. (See chapter nine of Stephen Jay Gould’s Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes for a nice account of Darwin’s recognition of earthwormia’s influence on his backyard.)

Compare earthworms (who took years to turn Darwin’s soil) to an earthquake. An earthquake is big, discernable, attention-grabbing; its impact is immediate and vast. Take away a single earthquake, and you notice its absence.

I’m tempted to say that, while an earthquake will turn Darwin’s backyard soil every bit as reliably as earthworms will, it will do so with such bluster and heavy-handedness and violence that the final result will be far less agreeable than that of the earthworms’ much more gradual, combined efforts. But who knows if this claim is true? By what standards is the ‘agreeableness’ to be judged?

My real point is to warn against the temptation to ignore or to dismiss the small changes that take place everyday in the economy – the introduction of kitchen trash bags with deodorizers; the reduction in the amount of aluminum used to make a soda can; reductions in transportation costs that make affordable fresh fruit more reliably available year round; the invention of Listerine PocketPack breath strips; the availability of toothpaste with hydrogen peroxide; improvements in products that remove stains from clothing and carpets; improvements in the techniques used to freeze foods; the use of vinyl as siding for homes; the increasing availability of darn good sushi even in supermarkets…. the list is practically endless.

Pointing to any one of these developments (or any hundred of them) and saying “See, life for ordinary people in market economies is improving!” often inspires derisive dismissals. How much, after all, can a deodorized kitchen trash bag actually contribute to a better life?

But add up all the countless, individually nearly insignificant changes taking place every day in market economies – step back and look at progress over several years – and you see unmistakable and significant improvement.

Many people who don’t appreciate the market look, I believe, for the equivalent of earthquakes — large, boisterous, glamorous, big one-fell-swoop changes. Such changes can be imagined to be glorious. But can they compare with the market’s equivalent of Darwin’s earthworms?