Happy Days – Not

by Don Boudreaux on May 3, 2016

in History, Myths and Fallacies, Standard of Living

Although Douglas Rushkoff had by page 16 of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus already given me enough reason to anticipate that the remaining 229 pages of this new book would be a stream of little more than historical errors and economic misunderstandings, when I first read the following line on page 16 I honestly thought, mistakenly, that Rushkoff was being facetious or ironic:

For a happy couple of centuries before industrialism and the modern era….

“Happy”?  “Happy?!”  What does Rushkoff mean?  He explains a few lines later (pages 16-17, footnote excluded):

The [pre-indusrial] bazaar was a peer-to-peer economy, something along the lines of eBay or Etsy, where attention to human relationships and reputations promoted better business.  There was no middleman, no central platform through which exchanges were conducted, except for the appointed time and place of the bazaar itself.  Since people transacted back and forth, all sorts of interdependencies developed that in turn fostered more and better commerce.  Pete the wainwright bought oats from Joe the oat seller, who needed to provide a good product not simply because he wanted to keep a customer but because he needed good wagon wheels.  To give Pete bad oats meant risking more than future business; it meant that the craftsperson making Joe’s wife’s wagon wheels would be sick on the job.  This was a bound community of commerce, where transactions were informed by a multiplicity of values.

Rushkoff goes on to celebrate the charms and wonders of guild restrictions that reduced the competitive pressures faced by producers.

And then, according to Rushkoff, this happiness was destroyed by capitalism – an economic institution invented by Renaissance monarchs (!) to keep the uppity “craftspeople” in their place.  The monarchs contrived this blind-growth-obsessed institution by chartering monopolies (!) at which “craftspeople” were forced to seek employment.  “Instead of selling their wares, people now sold their hours” (p. 18).

It was never really about efficiency anyway: industrialism was about restoring the power of those at the top by minimizing the value and price of human laborers.  This became the embedded value system of industrialism, and we see it in every aspect of the commercial landscape, then and now (pp. 18-19).

…..

Where to begin?  As documented by all serious historians of the era, the living standards of ordinary people before the industrial age were wretched compared to the living standard after industrialism took root.

When I read the above-quoted passage in Rushkoff’s book I thought ‘He obviously hasn’t read Fernand Braudel or Deirdre McCloskey.’  (Or, for that matter, Joel Mokyr or the Gieses or T.S. Ashton or William Manchester or Angus Deaton or …. the list is long.)  But later in the book Rushkoff cites the very volume by Braudel that I had in mind, The Structures of Everyday Life: Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century (1981).  How Rushkoff can have read Braudel’s excellent work of history and then go on to describe the couple of centuries prior to the industrial age as “happy” is more than a bit befuddling.

As Braudel (among many others) documents, most pre-industrial people slept on the straw-strewn dirt floors of cramped huts beneath roofs made of thatch and with no indoor plumbing, artificial lighting, or air-conditioning.  Farm animals were brought into the huts to supply heat for the humans.  Famines were common.  Everyone – including those happy craftspeople – were at high risks of dying from bacterial infections or, worse, suffering the death of their children from the same.  Their diets were dreary, monotonous, and not very nutritious.  (I quote Braudel here from memory: “Diets consisted of gruel, gruel, and more gruel.”)

Each of these people, the ordinary run of the lot of them, lived on the equivalent of just over three 2016 U.S. dollars per day.  Today, conservatively estimated, an ordinary American lives on about $110 per day.  You can do the math.  But you don’t have to do it.  Just ponder the enormous reduction in unhappiness that comes naturally from parents confronting a dramatic reduction in the risk of having to bury one or more of their children, or from women confronting a dramatic reduction in the risk of dying from giving birth, or from everyone having a practically 100 percent chance of living a (long) lifetime without ever once having to worry about literally starving to death or contracting small pox.

Ponder the happiness of knowing that anesthesia exists for medical patients.

Rushkoff – if his new book is any indication – is unaware of such sources of happiness.  For him, the fact that none of us today interacts personally, “peer-to-peer,” with “craftspeople” who supply all of our needs is an evident problem that signifies a dysfunctional economic system.  (Says Rushkoff: “While mass production disconnects workers from skills and the creation of value, mass marketing now disconnects workers from the people they’re serving.  Mass-produced products may have lost their handcrafted quality, but they made up for it with consistency” [p. 19].)

I’ve a serious question: Who are the target readers for books such as Rushkoff’s?  Are people really so historically ignorant, so benighted by the absurdities and illogic of localism, or so mindlessly entranced whenever they read words such as “craftspeople” or “artisanal,” that they find in books such as this one ideas and arguments worthy of serious consideration?

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