November 29, 2020 Reading Time: 3 minutes

Recently, my wife and I spent a good chunk of the day assembling IKEA furniture. I’m happy to report that we did it without involving medical professionals or law enforcement. I count that as a pretty big win considering my technical proclivities.

As we worked, my every neuron screamed, “This is not your comparative advantage or even your absolute advantage.” I had to hush my inner voice because assembling IKEA furniture was an opportunity to reflect, once again, on just what makes our world incredible.

What makes IKEA furniture valuable? Is it the labor that went into its manufacture? The capital goods and tools the workers were using? The wood and screws that make up my new desk? Or the metal and petroleum derivatives that make up my new chair?

No. The ideas they embody, not the materials they contain, are where the value lies. The idea of fitting wood and metal together just so makes my new desk suitable for my purposes. My desk lamp’s designer, for example, was named right on the box. Tilling the ground, swinging a hammer, operating a table saw, or even steering a container ship certainly contributed. However, the lamp gets most of its value from its design.

Then there are the IKEA instructions. I’ve written before that my favorite tool is my wallet because I’m not very good at anything that involves swinging a hammer. Like LEGO instructions, IKEA instructions are “written” with a series of images and arrows, making it so that anyone in any culture can understand them. The ability to give directions that are so clear as to be practically impossible to misunderstand is another underappreciated talent. I’m sure that with a little reflection, we can all think of a lot of examples in which we have lost time, money, or something else because we communicated poorly. In academia, one can build an entire career writing papers about what an eminent scholar really meant. How much trouble and confusion–and how many books and scholarly articles–could have been avoided had writers just been a bit clearer? Or had readers read just a bit more charitably and carefully?

Attractive IKEA furniture is designed in Sweden by part of a Dutch conglomerate and manufactured in China. It comes to the United States in sleek packaging containing easy-to-follow instructions. The process represents the very essence of how the West grew rich. We came up with new ideas for the “wave of gadgets” that swept across England and its overseas extensions. It wasn’t because of anything in the soil, which had been there for eons. Nor was it because of sheer brute strength. It happened because we unleashed our creativity.

Of course, assembling IKEA furniture as such probably won’t give you a profound sense of meaning, just like switching breakfast cereals or drinking more beer won’t cure your existential dread. That’s the realm of theology and philosophy. IKEA desks, chairs, and lamps are, however, nice to have. Their value, again, is not in the brute force or raw materials required for their manufacture but in the ideas they embody. Cooking shows and the “Creme Fraiche” episode of South Park show you creative chefs’ twist on pizza, potato salad, and pots of chili.

When you go into IKEA or visit their website, you get to see their designers’ twists on bookshelves, office chairs, and task lamps. Which desk and lamp recipes “win?” It’s not the ones that require the most labor or the most savings. In the long run, it might not even be the ones that capture the imaginations of design aficionados. The winning recipes are the ones that get enough “votes” in the form of the dollars people spend.

Art Carden

Art Carden

Art Carden is a Senior Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. He is also an Associate Professor of Economics at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama and a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.

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