To Build a Better Can Opener

“How the heck does this thing work?”

I struggled with the new can opener for 20 minutes before giving up. This thing doesn’t work. Has the government wrecked the can opener too? Hmmm, maybe I should read the instructions. I had done the “guy thing” and attempted to use a new product without bothering to spend 10 seconds reading the instructions.

Incredibly, I had already opened the can without knowing it. I lifted the top off. It was beautiful. Nothing sharp. It was like magic.

Stunning. This tiny contraption totally rethinks the entire idea of can opening, relying on a completely different method, one that surprises and thrills. Even after 100 or so years during which the established ways were unquestioned, the market has given us a better way, where and when we least expected it!

The old can opener opens the top, right? The new kind crawls along the side and cuts it open just under the lid, meaning that you lift the top off, rather than dig around in the center and cut yourself.

The new opener requires no change in the can shape. It takes the existing reality as it has existed since our great-grandparents’ time and generates a totally different solution to the problem.

As soon as you see it in action, you think: Of course! Of course that’s how it should work! Why didn’t anyone think of this before? Can opening might never be the same. Our children will never know a jagged, dangerous can top. No dog digging through the garbage will ever again cut his or her tongue. Never again will a lid fall into the beans and have to be fished out with a fork.

Looking through the Amazon reviews of the OXO Smooth Edge Can Opener, I’m stunned to discover than this contraption has been around 10 years yet completely eluded my notice. When Addison Wiggin’s 5 Min. Forecast mentioned this device, people wrote in that this thing had been on the shelves for years — where had Tucker been?

But hey, one doesn’t buy a new can opener every day. I recall that my mother used an electric opener that I now think of as rather quaint. I never imagined there would be any fundamental progress in how this tool could work.

But let us move to the more important question. How did this stunning progress happen? The commercial marketplace made something new from the old. It called into existence a new thing that didn’t exist. It’s a dent in the universe made possible only through the dynamic and creative hydraulics of enterprise in a man-made world made ever improved and orderly through the spontaneous cooperation of people without central direction.

No government agency thought of this. Had some regulator thought of it, it wouldn’t have worked right. Or what if government had imposed a fixed idea of how cans should be opened and there could be no other? Government does this with thousands of other products. We never really know what we are missing because innovation has been shut down in so many other areas.

Then there are the things that government fully controls: foreign policy, prison policy, public education, the judicial system, money and finance, police. Here we see stasis. History is frozen. Sometimes there is an attempt at reform, but it rarely makes the system better. Most crucially, we are denied unknown improvements that we might otherwise see if these systems lived within a market system.

Leave goods and services to the market and voila, we get something out of nothing. And then the idea spreads and improves everything, provided there are no artificial barriers. This new tool is patented and therefore shuts other competitors out of the market, so we have to wait for the technology to spread and for prices to fall — a perfect example of how a seemingly small government intervention slows down the progress of history.

All of this happened while I was reading a book that takes creativity to new level. It was written in 1922 by Ludwig von Mises. I came across this passage:

“The creative spirit innovates necessarily. It must press forward. It must destroy the old and set the new in its place. It could not conceivably be relieved of this burden. If it were it would cease to be a pioneer. Progress cannot be organized…. Society can do nothing to aid progress. If it does not load the individual with quiet unbreakable chains, if it does not surround the prison in which it encloses him with quite unsurmountable walls, it has done all that can be expected of it. Genius will soon find a way to win its own freedom.”

Beautiful. Perfect. The book is Socialism by Ludwig von Mises, a book that relentlessly demonstrates that government intervention not only makes innovation impossible; it creates economic chaos that ends in demolishing civilization. Piecemeal socialism does this bit by bit. All-at-once socialism creates a bloody catastrophe. Socialism by Mises is e-book of the week for the Spy Briefing Club.

Here was a famous Austrian academic economist. He was surrounded by socialists left and right. Socialism had been opposed before, but never on this level. Two years earlier, he had thrown down the gauntlet with the following argument: If capital goods are not owned by private parties, they aren’t traded, and market prices for them do not emerge. That means the end of cost accounting, without which producers are groping in the dark. They don’t know how much in resources to acquire, how to use them economically, how much to pay workers, how much stuff to make, how to make trade-off decisions, or what to research and develop. Central planners certainly can’t pull off this feat.

Under socialism, there won’t be any newfangled can openers. There might not be can openers at all. Or cans. Or stuff to put in the cans. Or machines to make the cans. A consistent socialism will reduce us all to a hunter-gatherer state of being.

Note that Mises’ argument is value free. It doesn’t say that collectivism is good or bad. It doesn’t rely on the old argument concerning incentives, an argument that is true enough, but seems to rely on certain postulates concerning the nature of man. Mises’ core point concerns something more objective. In a world of scarcity, we need to allocate rationally. We need measures to assess the economic merits of our choices. We need standards by which our forecasts can be declared successful or not. Socialism provides none of that.

Still, people might imagine that this book is old news. After all, Soviet communion is history, and so are all the socialist experiments of its satellite states. Actually, that changes none of the prescience or applicability of Mises’ text. Mises’ argument is about the superiority of markets over all forms of government planning. That means it has direct relevance to our current plight of an increasingly bureaucratized world in which rules and regulations govern and strangle many aspects of the material world.

And the relevance is not only implied. It is discussed in detail. Mises takes on environmentalism, health care mandates, welfare provision, public pensions, arts subsidies, public education, foreign trade and investment, war, race and sex relations, publicly funded science, antitrust policy, religion, labor cooperatives, taxation, inflation, patents, and so much more.

A sample passage on monetary expansion:

[Inflation] leads everyone to consume his fortune; it discourages saving, and thereby prevents the formation of fresh capital. It encourages the confiscatory policy of taxation. The depreciation of money raises the monetary expression of commodity values and this, reacting on the book values of changes in capital — which the tax administration regard as increases in income and capital — becomes a new legal justification for confiscation of part of the owners’ fortune. References to the apparently high profits which entrepreneurs can be shown to be making, on a calculation assuming that the value of money remains stable, offers an excellent means of stimulating popular frenzy. In this way, one can easily represent all entrepreneurial activity as profiteering, swindling, and parasitism. And the chaos which follows, the money system collapsing under the avalanche of continuous issues of additional notes, gives a favorable opportunity for completing the work of destruction.

Hence the Occupy movement. Hence the popularity of dangerous anti-capitalist frenzies in the media and politics. And this prediction came 90 years ago!

This book is absolutely thrilling on every page. I’m especially impressed by the pacing of the argument. It is as fast and hot as it is rigorous and thorough, as if Mises couldn’t get the information out of his head and onto paper fast enough.

No one in Mises’ generation could avoid his argument. The book shocked and angered a generation — and set off two generations of ongoing debate. The book still stands as the great challenge to all forms of government control.

In a marvelous introduction, professor Peter Boettke of George Mason University explains the background of this work, its scope and meaning, and its applicability in our times. He is a world-class expert on the whole topic, having edited a 10-volume set that focuses on this book.

Someone asked me the other day: Do you think this book is well read today? My answer: Absolutely not. It is more of a symbol than a reality. People know it exists. But they generally do not turn to it. When you take the time to open it and study it, you find delights and dazzlements on every single page.

That this situation will change with this edition is my highest hope. This work provides such wonderful light and hope in a time without that much of either. Mises shows the way forward by exposing the errors of those who want to go backward.

Mises’ Socialism helps you see the world in a new way. It’s the same way I can buy a new can opener at the store, use it, and see within its functioning something remarkable about the structure of the social order and history’s trajectory. A great book can do this. Mises was a creative genius, doing in the world of ideas what great entrepreneurs do in the world of commerce.

Let’s all pay tribute to him by partaking of his thought. Socialism is the best beginning.

P.S. You can probably tell that I’m pretty fired up about this release. So is Peter Boettke, who wrote the introduction. It was my pleasure to interview him for the release of this book. You can watch this interview here. You will be delighted by his intellectual energy and expanse of knowledge on display!

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