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Half Mad with the Itch for 'Simpler Times'?

Every semester I teach the large section – with 200 or so students – of Principles of Microeconomics. It’s always a joy. Yesterday evening I met my Fall 2004 class for the first time.

I began this class as I begin all of my Principles classes – namely, by informing my students that each of them is among the very wealthiest people ever to live. Some of my evidence for this claim is the fact that my students are alive, that their parents probably are still alive, that they never worry about starving to death or being killed or disfigured by small pox, that they bathe regularly, and that they each live a home with solid floors, walls, and ceilings and into which livestock do not routinely roam, defecate, and urinate.

Among the reasons for this historical review of the miserable pre-industrial living standards of ordinary men and women – what historian Fernand Braudel called “the structures of everyday life” – is that I want my students to be in awe of what the market economy and its deep, deep division of labor achieves. Even the most modest – indeed, even the very poorest – of living standards in the United States today is vastly more comfortable, safe, and hygienic than were living standards for ordinary people just a few generations ago.

In his magisterial History of England, Thomas Babington Macaulay vividly described a slice of life of the typical highland Scot as recently as the 17th century:

His lodging would sometimes have been in a hut of which every nook would have swarmed with vermin. He would have inhaled an atmosphere thick with peat smoke, and foul with a hundred noisome exhalations. At supper grain fit only for horses would have been set before him, accompanied by a cake of blood drawn from living cows. Some of the company with which he would have feasted would have been covered with cutaneous eruptions, and others would have been smeared with tar like sheep. His couch would have been the bare earth, dry or wet as the weather might be; and from that couch he would have risen half poisoned with stench, half blind with the reek of turf, and half mad with the itch.

Lovely life, no?

Todd Buchholz is correct when he writes, in his New Ideas from Dead Economists (1989), that “For most of man’s life on earth, he has lived no better on two legs than he had on four.”

This basic but little-noticed fact is essential to a proper appreciation of markets, commerce, and civilization.

So be especially grateful when you next shower, eat a filling meal, or wrestle with your toddlers on your living-room floor.


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