After a bit of cajoling, my wife and I capitulated and allowed our kids to get a dog. Lucy, a black lab mix, is the newest addition to our family and follows in the footsteps of JoJo, the adorable white bunny we got at the end of last summer.
Naturally, there were all sorts of things we needed to get started. My wife went to the pet shop to get dishes, a leash, food, and all the other stuff you need. When she got home, I helped her unload the new chew toys, the food and water dishes, the huge bag of dog food, and so on. All the while, I kept saying to myself don’t look at the receipt, don’t look at the receipt, don’t look at the receipt…
I looked at the receipt. Then I had a moment of silence for our checking account.
Then something became very real to me. Capitalism—defined, as Deirdre McCloskey defines it, is a system in which people voluntarily trade private property and free labor, governed by the rule of law and an ethical consensus—means our *dog* will have a higher standard of living than our ancestors did—and, tragically, a higher standard of living than a lot of people in the world right now.
Part of what makes this so interesting to me is the fact that in the case of pet adoption, there is a lot more play than narrow self-interest and the profit motive. We adopted Lucy from a local nonprofit organization that provides foster homes for unwanted animals and then tries to provide them with permanent homes. They are very clearly concerned with pet welfare very broadly, as they make sure that every animal in that place has been fixed, vaccinated, and microchipped. She is also housebroken. I was reminded of what Bob Barker said at the end of every episode of “The Price is Right” when I was growing up: have your pets spayed or neutered, and help control the population.
Apparently, they encourage very responsible pet ownership. The foster caretaker with whom we dealt today gave us several recommendations for pet food, appropriate toys, and appropriate play. She mentioned, interestingly, that she does not buy anything made in China because regulations there are less stringent. She noted that in several cases animals have gotten sick from products made in China. While she does not trust products made in China, she does trust products made by Purina. She noted, for example, that a lot of hearing testing is done with dogs like Lucy in mind. Of course, she said that dog food from Kirkland is perfectly good. These are voluntary trades of private property, but not, in this case, guided by the profit motive.
What would motivate Purina? Why wouldn’t they cut corners to make a quick buck? People feel very strongly about family pets, and making lousy products that second them might not be a very good long-run strategy. Our kids are beside themselves with joy because we have a new pet, and the fact that we have and can care for a pet is the result of the efforts of armies of people we will probably never meet who may not even care about dogs or rabbits. Their attention to their own families, their own goals, their own desires, and their own values, however, have induced them to cooperate with us.
As of this writing, hundreds of millions of human beings live on less than $1.25 a day. That’s $1.25 worth of food, clothing, and shelter every single day. It isn’t at all unlike the standards of living our ancestors “enjoyed“ pretty much since humans started walking upright. And yet it pales in comparison to the food, clothing, shelter, and entertainment our dog gets to enjoy. Did it happen because of the government? Redistribution? Welfare? Not mainly. It happened because of enormous increases in our ability to produce food, clothing, and shelter—increases so enormous that we are able to feed amply, “clothe” (with a collar), and shelter a big dog we got just for the joy of having her around.
I spend a lot of time and energy thinking about how free people in free markets raise the standards of living with my fellow human beings and how they make my children materially better off. After looking at the receipt from the pet supply store, it became very clear to me that free people in free markets are making it so that our animal friends are mind-blowingly better off, as well.
Last year, my friend and AIER colleague Jeffrey Tucker published a collection of essays titled The Market Loves You. It seems pretty clear from our experience getting a dog that the market doesn’t just love us–it loves our dog, too.