Last night the temperature fell 3 degrees an hour. As I write this, it is negative 10 degrees outside. A “once in a generation” polar vortex has swept into the American Midwest from the Arctic.
I am lucky to be alive. It would take me just a couple of hours to die from hypothermia if I were outside in such weather. But I am not just alive, I am comfortable. It is a balmy 73 degrees in my home. I am relaxing by my gas fireplace that gives off a warm heat as gentle flames dance about and please my eye. I can hear the gentle whir of fans blowing heat around my living room, generated by my furnace. I write this on my comfortable sofa with a computer on my lap powered by electricity and fed information via the Internet, itself powered by electricity and glass-fiber conduits that carry information to me from computers and minds from across the earth.
My refrigerator is full. I went to the grocery store last night in my car that is powered by an internal combustion engine and fueled by gasoline, which was refined from petroleum that was pumped out of wells drilled in miles-long holes and transported in pipelines and rail cars and refined at complex and gargantuan refineries and made accessible to me via pumps placed at stations in convenient locations for me to use. I am eating an orange that was grown in Florida or Brazil thousands of miles away and transported to me by railroads and airplanes powered by jet engines.
You can continue this description of bounties that, as we go back in time, human beings could only dream about. Even to a person living as recently as 1900, the Internet and jet airplanes would have seemed like science fiction. To a person living in 1800, electricity and railroads and combustion engines would have seemed like science fiction. And to a peasant working the fields — as more than 90% of all humans did for the past 10,000 years until the 1800s — technology itself is a concept they could not even understand, as they lived lives so hard that we can scarcely imagine it.
A couple statistics hardly do justice to the gulf in quality of life between 1800 and today:
Then vs. Now
For those who did survive, most of them were in pain most of the time. Today, most of us live pain-free lives most of the time. 200+ years ago, George Washington rarely smiled because his wooden teeth caused him near constant pain. Today, one can have pain-free and near permanent dental implants, while going to the dentist itself — which used to be a terrifying ordeal — is nearly pain-free due to the inventions of novocaine and high-speed dental drills.
Who can I thank for all this? I can thank the inventors who invented the internal combustion engine and the electric grid. I can thank the scientists who discovered the principles of optics and physics that made possible the transmission of data on fiber optic lines. I can thank the philosophers who discovered the principles of reason used by the scientists. I can thank the businessmen who put it all together and delivered it to customers. And I can thank the financiers who picked the winning ideas and the winning businessmen who could turn those ideas into life-giving products and services.
In a word, I can thank capitalism. Capitalism is the political and economic system that makes all of it possible. Capitalism is the system of liberty — of individual freedom and private property rights — that enables and rewards individuals to take their ideas and turn them into the products and services that benefit themselves and others through trade. To the extent it exists, capitalism unleashes the human ingenuity that keeps me — and millions of my fellows — alive and comfortable on this unseasonably cold morning.
Unfortunately, capitalism exists only imperfectly in the world but, to the extent societies embrace it, they are experiencing economic growth and prosperity that translates, on the ground and in people’s homes to the comfort, safety, and pleasure that I am experiencing now. Without these life-giving technologies two hundred years ago, I might have suffered frostbite or died on a day like today.
Thank you capitalism – and to the scientists, inventors, businessmen, and financiers who flourish in capitalism – for keeping me alive and safe this frosty morning.