Do most people value electricity and indoor plumbing more than cell phones and the Internet? In his article, Is U.S. Economic Growth Over?, economist Robert Gordon argues that they obviously do, and offers this thought experiment to prove his point:
A thought experiment helps to illustrate the fundamental importance of the inventions of [the second industrial revolution] compared to the subset of [computer age] inventions that have occurred since 2002. You are required to make a choice between option A and option B. With option A you are allowed to keep 2002 electronic technology, including your Windows 98 laptop accessing Amazon, and you can keep running water and indoor toilets; but you can’t use anything invented since 2002.
Option B is that you get everything invented in the past decade right up to Facebook, Twitter, and the iPad, but you have to give up running water and indoor toilets. You have to haul the water into your dwelling and carry out the waste. Even at 3 am on a rainy night, your only toilet option is a wet and perhaps muddy walk to the outhouse. Which option do you choose?
I have posed this imaginary choice to several audiences in speeches, and the usual reaction is a guffaw, a chuckle, because the preference for Option A is so obvious. The audience realizes that it has been trapped into recognition that just one of the many late 19th century inventions is more important than the portable electronic devices of the past decade on which they have become so dependent.
Option A does seem rather obvious, even to those who may have to consider the relative merits of Win98 versus an outhouse. But as Kevin Kelly explains, Option A is not obvious at all—at least not to non-Westerners:
The farmers in rural China have chosen cell phones and twitter over toilets and running water. To them, this is not a hypothetical choice at all, but a real one—and they have made their decision in massive numbers. Tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions, if not billions of people in the rest of Asia, Africa and South America have chosen Option B. You can go to almost any African village to see this. And it is not because they are too poor to afford a toilet. As you can see from these farmers’ homes in Yunnan, they definitely could have at least built an outhouse if they found it valuable. (I know they don’t have a toilet because I’ve stayed in many of their homes.) But instead they found the intangible benefits of connection to be greater than the physical comforts of running water.
Most of the poor of the world don’t have such access to resources as these Yunnan farmers, but even in their poorer environment they still choose to use their meager cash to purchase the benefits of the 3rd revolution over the benefits of the 2nd revolution. Connection before plumbing. It is an almost universal choice.
This choice may seem difficult for someone who has little experience in the developing world, but in the places were most of the world lives we can plainly see that the fruits of the 3rd generation of automation are at least as, and perhaps more, valuable than some fruits of the 2nd wave of industrialization.
This reveals one of the reasons why economic freedom is absolutely essential, both for Westerners and citizens of developing nations: Human flourishing requires that individuals have the liberty to make their own choices about alternatively worthy goods.
Not all goods are equally worthy, of course, so not all choices are equally worthy. As Jesus once asked, “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” Serpents and scorpions are not adequate substitutes for fish and eggs. Similarly, a person who would choose heroin over a hamburger is making an undeniably wrong choice.
But when choosing between goods that can lead to flourishing—such as cell phones and toilets—the person who is able to best determine their relative value is the individual who will use them. For a family in Sudan, a porcelain toilet may be a wonderful luxury. However, if given the choice of a toilet or a cell phone, that same family may make a different choice than most Americans would make. A cell phone may, for instance, open up opportunities for entrepreneurship that outweigh the benefits of indoor plumbing.
Most of us will never run an NGO or government aid agency or make decisions about development for third world countries. But by being aware of how people in other countries use their economic freedom, we can better understand why it is worth defending here at home.