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Cleaned by Capitalism: It’s More than a Wash

Here’s a letter to the Wall Street Journal:


Thanks for flagging the irony that mandated “energy-efficiency” standards for automatic dishwashers save no energy because they cause these machines to wash dishes less thoroughly and, thus, prompt people to spend more time pre- and post-washing dishes by hand under kitchen faucets with heated water (“Make Dishwashers That Clean Again,” October 14).

Another, related irony is revealed by your observation that “modern dishwashers don’t clean dishes well.” Although among government’s chief ostensible motives for mandating energy-efficiency standards is the desire to reduce pollution, one actual consequence of these diktats is more pollution – more pollution, in this case, in the form of the bacteria that infest dirtier, less-sanitized dishes.

Self-styled environmentalists are hyper-sensitive to climate change, species loss, and other environmental threats that, even if real, are distant in space and time from everyday human experience. But these environmentalists are blind to the astonishing cleansing that industrial capitalism has worked, and continues to work, on the here-and-now environments of ordinary people.

Our homes are today filled with goods that protect us from filth and pollutants of the sort that not only annoyed, but sometimes even killed, our ancestors of only a few generations ago. We today have, for example, inexpensive detergents, hand soaps, insecticides, disposable paper towels and diapers and plastic bags, air-conditioning, refrigerators, automatic clothes washers, potable running water, powerful electric vacuum cleaners, and, yes, automatic dishwashers.

To the extent that government’s environmental mandates arise from failure to appreciate the extent to which our everyday lives are cleaned by these fruits of capitalism, these mandates – although meant to cleanse our environment further – run the risk of stymying capitalist innovation and, thus, condemning our children and grandchildren to household environments that will be dirtier and more lethal than those that we enjoy today.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030