Art Carden  

I, Toaster: Revisited

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One of my favorite TED Talks is Thomas Thwaites' explanation of how he tried to build a toaster from scratch. It's an excellent example of the lesson taught by Leonard E. Read in "I, Pencil." A couple of the organizations for which I have done some work have also created "I, Pencil"-esque resources. The Competitive Enterprise Institute put together the "I, Pencil" Movie, and the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics brought us "I, Smartphone."

I've been thinking more about how neat it is that trade allows us to economize on knowledge, or make use of others' knowledge without actually having that knowledge ourselves. In my most recent LearnLiberty video, I discuss how trade allows me to do a lot of things I'm not especially well-equipped to do myself.

In a recent homework assignment, I asked my students whether "grow your own vegetables to save money" is good or bad advice. I later posted this video in which I "grow vegetables" in my office--by specializing in grading macroeconomics homework and using the money I earn as an economics professor to buy vegetables. I am able, without knowing a whole lot about plant biology or the intricacies of large-scale farming, to enjoy tasty fruits and vegetables as the (wait for it) fruits of my specialized knowledge and labor.

Alienated and demoralized? Hardly. I'm participating in a global division of labor and knowledge in which our ability to trade frees up my time and energy to spend with friends and family and in which the institutions of the market bring me into cooperative relationships with people I don't know and might not even like. That, in my book, is pretty marvelous.



COMMENTS (8 to date)
F. Lynx Pardinus writes:

It's fine now, but if there's a disaster, you can't build or repair anything and you can't grow food. I would be a bit nervous about that--I try to encourage myself and family members to get their hands dirty with repairs and gardening from time to time.

Chris H writes:

@F Lynx Pardinus

Or certain people could specialize in disaster preparedness and when that strikes save you more effectively than you as an unspecialized person could do yourself.

Of course there could be a disaster so big that all the disaster preparedness people are killed or cut off from you, but let's be honest. In such a situation if even the specialists preparing for something like this are dead how likely is it you will survive? People who prepare themselves for a major disaster that they expect to kill almost everyone seem to forget that they will almost assuredly be included in the almost everyone who is dead, regardless of their skills. That is unless you live in the middle of nowhere far away from potential disaster areas (so Montana isn't going to cut it when the Yellowstone supervolcano blows). In that regard you are losing out on a lot of life in order to have a somewhat larger chance of avoiding immediate death in catastrophe that has near zero chances of happening (civilization ending disasters are pretty damn rare).

So no being ready for a major disaster still doesn't make a lot of sense as a reason to abandon specialization of labor.

Urstoff writes:

If there's a disaster that big, everyone is going to be in deep trouble The tiny price we pay for being wealthy and healthy is that in the incredibly small chance that civilization collapses, we will die more quickly than our hunter-gatherer brethren.

Tom West writes:

The tiny price we pay for being wealthy and healthy is that in the incredibly small chance that civilization collapses, we will die more quickly than our hunter-gatherer brethren.

Indeed, there's pretty much always a trade-off between efficiency and robustness.

I do worry that we're *so* efficient that it will only take a small unexpected perturbation to make things go south very quickly.

This is exacerbated by the fact that part of that efficiency is the speed at which inefficient companies or processes are replaced. Since robustness is rewarded only rarely, it's quite possible that in the span of a year of two for all the less efficient, more robust businesses to be eliminated by their more efficient competition, leaving no backup if there's a systemic failure in the new, more efficient businesses.

But that's evolution for you. Get outcompeted by something that's adapted *perfectly* for your niche and die off. Then have the niche change slightly, and the new species dies off because it's perfect adaption for the old niche made it incapable of surviving changes.

Chris H writes:

@Tom West

I'm not so sure about that robustness difference. Consider that we manage to build up cities in environments as different as the arctic (with cities like Anchorage or Murmansk), tropical forests (Singapore, and Rio de Janero for instance), and even deserts (Phoenix and Riyadh). The interconnected of modern civilization gives different areas access to resources far distant from the place that faces a disaster. Not to mention how fast we tend to recover from disasters. Now, in the event of a global disaster, I would expect that a lot higher a percentage of the global population would die than if we were all hunter gatherers, but to a much greater extent hunter gatherers lack robustness against their day to day environments. Think of how much higher infant mortality and how much lower life expectancy is for a hunter gatherer than the average person today. Everyday nature kills hunter gatherers far more easily than it kills an average person in the modern world.

Then we should consider that major global disasters are not really kind to hunter-gatherers either. Consider the Toba catastrophe theory. Humans seem to have been nearly wiped out despite having the robustness of hunter-gatherer societies. Given our greater ability to pool resources, develop technological fixes, and larger numbers to start with, I'd be willing to bet that far more humans would be left alive after a similar type catastrophe now than would have been under pre-agriculture conditions.

Finch writes:

> civilization ending disasters are pretty damn rare

Where does this intuition come from? My prior was that collapse was the normal fate of civilizations, typically by being conquered by some outside force, or by some inside force in the case of revolutions. This past century it happened to Japan, Italy, Germany, France, China, and Russia, but not Britain and the US, just to look at the Great Powers. For some of these entities, it happened more than once.

Now these weren't quite Mad Max scenarios with global devastation and all that, but they were situations in which having a gun, knowing how to fix stuff, and having some idea how to get food in your locale without going to Stop&Shop might have been helpful...

Chris H writes:

@Finch

Now these weren't quite Mad Max scenarios with global devastation and all that, but they were situations in which having a gun, knowing how to fix stuff, and having some idea how to get food in your locale without going to Stop&Shop might have been helpful...

I'm not convinced. Consider that in the examples you give few people would have been conversant with the skills you note and in the vast majority made it through mostly unharmed (or were arrayed with problems of such magnitude that basic survival skills would have been very insufficient such as during the Russian Revolution or while being firebombed by opponents in a war).

Now it's true you might should be more concerned in some countries than others. Russia gets unstable enough even in the present to merit some preparation. But then there's little evidence that even a more minor catastrophe or invasion is likely in the current developed world. Internal pressures get released mostly through elections and occasionally fairly short lived riots (where the most important skill is keep your head down which takes little practice). As a portion of the population, even the worst riots rarely kill anything but a miniscule fraction of the populace despite most people being dependent on others for most goods and services. Large scale invasions often kill even very prepared people and are extremely unlikely for modern citizens of developed countries (especially countries either with nukes or allied with nuke-controlling countries).

You have a partial point that yes outside the English speaking world and some other developed countries (Sweden and Switzerland come to mind) man-made disasters have harmed a lot of daily activities that people generally rely on. But even so, the modern developed world as a whole seems to have fairly well moved beyond those things as a significant likelihood in the foreseeable future (if Russia looked like it was going to become powerful enough to invade the EU maybe EU residents should start preparing then but even then preparing for there to be no services seems like overkill given that specialists will likely still survive, if be more taxed than normal). I really think that for the average citizen of a developed country outside of perhaps Taiwan or South Korea (who have a very large potential enemy in the form of China) developing skills whose primary use is for surviving during a major invasion or revolution is mostly a waste of time.

Tom West writes:

Chris H, you make a very good point about technology providing perhaps even more help when things get very bad indeed.

I was thinking of perhaps less catastrophic, but still bad, events such as financial innovations that blow up or agricultural efficiencies that leave us with only a handful of varieties of each plant, and utter dependence on a lack of severe magnetic interference from the Sun. (I'm *not* looking forward to when Wheat Rust hits North America.)

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