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Quotation of the Day…

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… is from pages 162-163 of the late Stanley Lebergott’s great 1984 book, The Americans: An Economic Record [2] (footnote deleted; citation added):

“Tradition states that the first person who tried to produce an artificial wind were, by some, regarded as impiously invading the domain of Providence” [said Leo Rogin in 1931 [3]].  True, it was “unnatural.”  But so were a thousand technical changes, all introduced because human beings wished to do away with disagreeable chores – they hated to dig ditches with a shovel, empty privies, wash clothes by hand in freezing river water, pound corn in a wooden dish to make meal.  Technical change eventually substituted more agreeable techniques to achieve these tasks.  It also reduced the sheer effort required for a thousand different tasks.  Technology has proved to be the only way in which society can get something for nothing, that is, more goods and services without more human effort or real resources.

I’ve one minor quibble with an otherwise important and beautifully stated point: another way – a way in addition to technology – that allows society to “get something for nothing” is specialization and trade.  As Deirdre McCloskey persuasively argues [4], market-tested technological innovation is by far the greatest proximate driver of modern high standards of living.  Specialization and trade cannot directly account for the huge and steady increase in our living standards over the past few centuries.  But specialization and trade can directly account for some of this improvement [5].

If I can produce bananas at a lower cost than you can produce bananas, and if you can produce fish at a lower cost than I can produce fish, then even without any change in technology, if I specialize at producing bananas and you specialize at producing fish, total output expands.  Each of us becomes able to consume more than each of us can produce, with no one anywhere made worse off by our improved fortunes.  (Furthermore, specialization and trade, being essential for the promotion of innovation, indirectly accounts for a huge amount of the improvement in our standard of living.)

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