March 1, 2018 Reading Time: 4 minutes

There are many wonderful things in the world, but right now I want to talk about a product of the human mind that is a material celebration of the potential for creativity to overcome and rise above the state of nature.

To put it briefly and simply, I’ve found a toilet plunger that embodies the essence of the human drama and reveals why humanity, despite every strong-armed attempt to stamp out progress and subvert the good life, somehow manages not only to survive but thrive through the ages, including even our own.

The product is the Python Plunger, and before you dismiss this as just another household good, you have to consider the background here. Nearly a quarter century ago, a small government regulation in the US declared that your flushes can only use 1.6 gallons of water. It thereby ruined the best single aspect of indoor plumbing, namely the ability to drive human waste far from the human experience and wash away all evidence that it ever existed in the first place.

The Romans understood how to do this, but somehow the US Congress got confused, and imagined that you can improve water efficiency with a wish backed by a gun.

Broken Toilets

The result was a gradual change in a core functionality of the American bathroom. As old toilets were replaced with new ones, everything became worse. You had to have a plunger nearby. People switched from thick toilet paper to one-ply. You had to flush several times under some conditions. Overflowing toilets were common. With less water flowing through, the apparatus in the tank began to collect sediment and rotted. Bleach cubes to keep the bowl clean became essential. After a while, everyone began to think this was normal. A whole generation has now been raised to think that flushing the toilet is an iffy experience.

It’s true that every manufacturer has experimented with new designs, new pressure methods, new materials. This is why sometimes you flush and it sounds like a gun. These models are available now for domestic use. They splash everywhere and break easily. The truth is that nothing quite works as well as a typical toilet from the 1980s. We had it right and then we broke it.

You say you like your toilet? I say you don’t remember or never knew the good life. There has been a deep downgrade in quality. Now we acquiesce to the idea that every toilet needs a plunger close by. That’s kind of pathetic and kind of gross, but it is the way it is.

But there is an additional problem, and you know it. Often the plunger doesn’t work. You work it and work it, but still it doesn’t quite fix the issue. In desperation, you flush again. Then the ghastly mess begins. The whole scene is unspeakable and terribly embarrassing, not to mention truly unsanitary.

This is why I’m just so impressed by this new plunger technology. It is truly simple, as all brilliant ideas are. It builds a metal snake into the handle and gives the user a lever to push it through. It thereby breaks through the clog with a hole that allows the passage of water.

To be sure, had government never intervened at all, never passed these ridiculous regulations, this innovation would not have been necessary at all. We could have continued to use old-fashioned plungers with no problems. But the brilliance of free enterprise is that it inspires the production of solutions to problems. It is a fix-it machine. It seeks problems and inspires a race to overcome them.

Problem Solving

And this is why free enterprise brings progress to the world. It has always done so.

There is a body of water and we need to get across it. Build a boat. Build a bridge. Make it out of steel so it can hold tremendous weight. Invent an airplane to fly over it. Never let the problems of nature get in the way of the human aspiration to master the elements and triumph in the name of living a better life.

Sometimes the problems in life are created by governments that claim to be solving problems. They introduce rules, bureaucracies, systems of control, blocks to enterprise, barriers to entrepreneurship. Governments have done this since the ancient world. They do it every day now. How to respond? You figure it out. You make something new. You sell it and make a buck. Everything becomes a profit opportunity, and a chance to make the world a better place.

This is precisely why the Python Plunger is such a magnificent human achievement. But there is more. Notice how this is a small company that needs some big financing. Lots of companies are in this position. Thanks to the Internet, private enterprise innovated some fascinating new tools to raise money from people in a democratic way. Countless products have come to market that would otherwise have been stopped. And even here, government regulations restrict what can be done because to sell stock this way would violate securities regulation. Private enterprise to the rescue: your stock will be a product. Presale the whole thing! Problem solved.

Progress Is Not Automatic 

We dare not take this process for granted. It doesn’t happen automatically. It happens when there is a window of freedom to make progress possible. It happens when people take the initiative, take a risk, stick their necks out there, and dare to invite people to make a choice for what they have done, all in the hope of making a profit. What a system! What a solution!

And take a look around you. Everything you see is a solution to a problem. Take a look at your smartphone. It is the same: solutions to problems. Chances are that 99.9% of them come from the same source: private enterprise. Without it we would still be living in a state of nature, or, worse, in a state of government.

The tragedy is that once this plunger is in a million homes, and it sits there ready to go to work for us when bad things happen, we then take it for granted, presuming it has always been there and always will be there. Not so. It exists only because humans are claiming their rights to invent and serve others in the marketplace. The system that permits this deserves our admiration. And so do those who step up to the task of making the world a better place.

In this particular case, we are talking about fundamental technology that makes life livable: the ability to move human waste as far as possible from human activity. You might think we would have mastered this long ago. Thanks to government, we keep having to re-master it. All hail to those who accept the challenge.

Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker served as Editorial Director for the American Institute for Economic Research from 2017 to 2021.

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