David R. Henderson  

I, Needle Nose Pliers

Stop Thinking Like a Tourist: ... Which bus would you take?...


Above is a picture of a tool I borrowed from a neighbor (or, should I say "neighbour" since I'm at my cottage in Canada.)

The main insight from the classic "I, Pencil" is that no single person knows how to make a pencil but that it is made using an extensive, international division of labor and is done so well and efficiently that one high-quality pencil costs only a small amount of money.

When I borrowed the needle-nose pliers, I had a related thought: I needed that particular size of pliers to do what I needed to do: fix something in my shower head. No other pliers would do. And a division of labor similar to the one that led to the pencil produced this highly specialized piece of equipment for my neighbor at a relatively low cost.

I go into a hardware store every summer in Kenora, near my cottage at Minaki, When i look around at the awesome collection of tools, specialized for this or that use, I think that a hardware store is a testament to two things: (1) the high cost of our time, which leads us to choose a tool that's just right for the job, and (2) the power of the free market in delivering most of these items at a relatively low cost.

Hardware stores are one of my favorite places to browse, even if I'm buying only one item.

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COMMENTS (11 to date)
rich sinda writes:

Also, that products can be designed in complex ways with the knowledge that specialized tools exist to fix them rather than limiting design to ones that can be repaired with more general equipment.

Hazel Meade writes:

I'm still waiting for SnapTools to take off so I don't have to go buy a pair of pliers that I'm only going to use once.

David Seltzer writes:

I sat In Friedman's econ class when he told the story of the seemingly insignificant pencil and its components; thus demonstrating several broad economic principles.

Mike writes:

Did you pull out the flow restrictor?

Of course flow restrictors may be an U.S. only nuisance.

Jerry Brown writes:

When you borrow a tool from your neighbor where does " the power of the free market in delivering most of these items at a relatively low cost" show up? I guess it is a new meaning of the 'Free' in free market?

john hare writes:

@Jerry Brown
The power shows up as your neighbor can afford the tools you are borrowing. I'll loan a $5.00 pair of pliers without worry. The $2,000.00 weld-n-power, not so much. Or, the free market allows you to have a neighbor rich in tools.

Hazel Meade writes:

Things like TechShop and maker spaces are attempting to fill the tool sharing niche, but I don't think the free market has completely figured this one out yet.

You can rent certain tools from Home Depot for a fee. I don't think it includes something as small as a pliers though.

Jerry Brown writes:

Darn it John. I was hoping to borrow a welding setup. Of course, even if I manage that I will have to find a way to borrow someone with the skills to use it...

David R Henderson writes:

Thanks for answering Jerry Brown. The idea that the only consumers who gain from a free market are those who buy the items, and do not include those who borrow the items from the buyers, is bizarre.

Jerry Brown writes:

Professor Henderson, I believe my original comment should have ended with a smiley face emoticon seeing as this is an economics based blog :). I hate to generalize, but economists, in general, seem to be humor challenged :). Smiley faced emoticons seem to help in this regard.

In any case, I understand the point that the free market helps your neighbor to be able to purchase such a tool in the first place, which is a prerequisite to your ability to borrow it. But the act of borrowing the tool doesn't seem to say much about the market. With something hard to break or use up, like a pliers, it will have no market effects, unless you do not return it and your neighbor has to go out and buy another one.

Maybe I get a little out of sorts about tools. I am a contractor and I have (have to have more accurately) a lot of tools. I do lend some of them out to friends and neighbors but I have very mixed feelings about it. I am sorry if my comments seem bizarre, and will try to avoid that in the future.

ColoComment writes:

I have always loved the tool aisle of a hardware store, for the human ingenuity it displays. Of course, you can appreciate the generic drivers, wrenches and hammers (and needle-nosed pliers), but think about it:
Ingenious humans have also invented tools that do only one job, but do it perfectly because that is the sole job the tool was designed to do.
It was offset screw drivers that first clued me in on this. Then an oil filter wrench. The most ingenious tool I've come across (granted, I don't use many, so I make no claim on others' behalf) is a kitchen faucet (or basin) wrench.

Perfect for a job that no other tool could do.

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