April 22, 2019 Reading Time: 3 minutes

On my blog, Café Hayek, there’s a category called “Cleaned by Capitalism.” Posts in this category document the many ways that free and innovative capitalist markets make our environment cleaner, healthier, and more pleasant — in short, less polluted.

The phrase “Cleaned by Capitalism” is meant to grab attention. After all, a widespread belief is that, although capitalism brings us more material prosperity, it does so only by making our environment dirtier. Some people believe that the benefits of capitalist prosperity outweigh the costs of capitalist pollution, while other people believe that the benefits fall short of the costs. Either way, the belief is commonplace that greater material prosperity comes at the expense of a dirtier environment.

Yet closer examination reveals that this trade-off is largely nonexistent: capitalism not only brings us more material prosperity, it also makes our environment less polluted. While modern industrial and commercial operations do increase the amounts of some pollutants, our existence today has been cleansed of most of the worst forms of filth and pollution that infested the daily lives of our ancestors.

To make vivid the truth of this claim, over the years at my blog I have offered a series of posts featuring photographs of everyday items, brought to us by capitalism, that make our lives less polluted in ways that we too seldom notice. I invite you to have a look at the links offered below.

Reducing the Pollution of Bacteria

The idea for this series struck me about 10 years ago when I was walking out of an ordinary airport men’s room. There was nothing at all remarkable about that particular visit to the men’s room — a fact that, ironically, struck me as remarkable as I walked out of it. For the first time I took careful notice of the design of the entry-exit way. The doorless entry-exit way is a wide zig-zag path that permits easy entry and exit of luggage-toting patrons while simultaneously preventing people outside of the restroom from gazing in. No doors means that, to enter and exit restrooms, we need touch nothing that would transmit bacteria to our hands.

The simple innovation of designing and installing doorless entry-exit ways for public restrooms is one small but real way in which innovative capitalism has made our exposure to pollution less than it was just a few decades ago.

In fact, in modern airport restrooms we need touch not a single thing — not even a toilet seat — that has been touched by others. Toilets and urinals flush automatically, while the soap, the faucet water, and the paper towels are dispensed with waves of our hands. Men are now protected even from splashes.

Also cleansing our lives of that historically most lethal of pollutants — deadly bacteria — is affordable home refrigeration. And canning. And plastic. And ointments and disposable bandages — not to mention this inexpensive quotidian household product.

Bacteria are not commonly thought of as a pollutant, but what else to call those bacteria that debilitate and even kill the humans whose bodies they invade? In what ways do these bacteria differ from, say, ingested asbestos and lead that debilitate and kill people?

A solid case can be made that the single most important anti-pollutant brought to us by modern markets is antibiotics.

Look Around Your Home!

Further sanitizing our bodies are factory-woven textiles that are sturdy enough to be washed vigorously by detergents and automatic washers and dryers. These capitalist marvels, in effect, allow us to recycle our clothing over and over again.

Here’s another familiar household recycling machine that reduces the pollution to which we are daily exposed: automatic dishwashers.

Indeed, once you start noticing that markets enable us to protect ourselves, at low cost, from the filth and household pollutants that were routinely encountered until very recently, you can’t stop noticing. Here are some anti-pollution advances, each admittedly small, but the sum of which is significant:

You can even get shoe trees to kill the fungus in your footwear.

But I don’t wish to end with these small conquests of pollution. Here are four other, major advances, each brought to us by innovative capitalism, that rival antibiotics in reducing our exposure to lethal pollutants: electric lighting, air conditioning, asphalt, and — last but not least — the automobile.

On this Earth Day, look around your home and workplace and take notice of the very many ways that capitalism has made your daily life less polluted than that of any of your ancestors. And then give thanks.

Donald J. Boudreaux

Donald J. Boudreaux

Donald J. Boudreaux is a Associate Senior Research Fellow with the American Institute for Economic Research and affiliated with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University; a Mercatus Center Board Member; and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University. He is the author of the books The Essential Hayek, Globalization, Hypocrites and Half-Wits, and his articles appear in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, US News & World Report as well as numerous scholarly journals. He writes a blog called Cafe Hayek and a regular column on economics for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Boudreaux earned a PhD in economics from Auburn University and a law degree from the University of Virginia.

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