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Hans Rosling and the Magic Washing Machine: A Lesson

If you’re cool, you know about TED. You might have seen at least one talk by Hans Rosling of Sweden’s Karolinska Institute. Dr. Rosling is a gifted presenter, and one of his best talks is about the washing machine and what it means for the world. This morning, I gave a talk to a senior citizens’ group at UAB titled “More Immigrants, Please” and based on an article I wrote for the Birmingham News. I asked how many people used to wash clothes by hand, and I heard a lot of very interesting stories about life with the absence of something many of us take for granted. As Rosling points out, washing machines freed up enormous amounts of time and energy that people would have otherwise spent hand-washing their clothes. Running washing machines with fossil fuel-generated electricity means a much slower rate of deforestation–or, as Matt Ridley points out, it might even mean that the world is getting greener (literally) because we have substituted energy-dense fossil fuels for wood.

Beginning at about minute 8, Rosling points out just what the washing machine meant. It meant that people–women especially–had more time to cultivate their minds and the minds of their children. Why? Machines like washing machines freed up time that would have otherwise been spent on back-breaking drudgery. Indeed, the occasional frustrations I have with my computer–load faster, darn you!–strike me as petty and pathetic when I consider what it must have been like to have to haul water and wood to wash clothes. Rosling sounds like a hero from an Ayn Rand novel when he talks about how industrialization freed up people’s time and energy for learned and more pleasant pursuits.

Technology represents an obvious increase in our standard of living, but the same is true of trade, as well. As Ridley discusses in his excellent book The Rational Optimist, trade–like new machinery–frees up people’s time and energy for other things. Specialization and exchange, according to Ridley, created the free time that allowed us to create new ways of doing things. Adam Smith famously said that the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market. When we have more extensive markets, we have more extensive trade and a finer division of labor. When we have more trade and a finer division of labor, we are able to produce more output of all kinds: more goods, more services, more leisure.

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William Arthur ("Art") Carden is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California, and Assistant Professor of Economics at Samford University.

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