(*Note: Artist Thomas Thwaites responds to this article here.)
This week, a new exhibit called "The Toaster Project" opens at the Royal College of Art in London, England. On his website, artist Thomas Thwaites explains the gist: "I'm trying to build a toaster, from scratch—beginning by mining the raw materials and ending with a product that Argos sells for only £3.99." So Thwaites has been traveling around the world to acquire iron, nickel, copper, and oil from which he planned to make refined petroleum for the appliance's plastic moldings.
Thwaites was inspired by a passage from Douglas Adams' book Mostly Harmless, in which the protagonist attempts to win over the inhabitants of another planet by wowing them with the advanced technology of Earth. But, as Adams writes in the passage quoted on Thwaites' website, "Left to his own devices he couldn't build a toaster. He could just about make a sandwich and that was it."
The basic theme of Thwaites' Toaster Project, however, was first conceived back in 1958 in the brilliant essay "I, Pencil," written by Leonard Read, founder of the libertarian think tank Foundation for Economic Education. Read's influential essay meticulously runs through the processes required to create something as simple as an Eberhard Faber pencil, including the harvesting and processing of cedar, the mining of graphite, and the mining, processing, and application of the many minerals and chemicals that make up the pencil's eraser, ferrule (the bit of metal that holds the eraser in place), lacquer, ink, and the black nickel rings that fasten the ferrule to the pencil's wooden rod. Read also included those things that power the processing and refining plants, as well as the automobiles that transport the pencil ingredients to those factories (which are themselves made up of thousands of parts made up of millions of ingredients, also mined, processed, and assembled all over the world).
Read's conclusion, written in the first-person voice of the pencil:
In other words, the division of labor is what makes pencils—and, for that matter, all of the conveniences of modern life—possible. Millions of people are involved in the manufacture of a single pencil, or in Thwaites' case, a single toaster. No single human being could possibly possess the know-how to make one on his own.
Thwaites may well end up making some approximation of a modern toaster, but he'll come nowhere near his stated goal of having made one on his own. He notes on his website, for example, that he used a microwave (which of course he didn't create from scratch) to smelt the iron ore he found into steel. He used modern transportation to collect his various raw ingredients. And he fed and nourished himself through the whole process with food produced by modern agriculture and industry. No single man can make a pencil, and as Thwaites' project will demonstrate, no single man is capable of making a toaster, either.
Read's larger point was that no single person involved in the making of a pencil is in his respective business because he necessarily wants or needs a pencil. From the miners to the factory workers to the truck drivers to the smelters to the architects of the factories to the executives that run the companies that fund and organize each step of the process, each and every participant is in the game for his own self interest—to make a living, and to make a contribution that's really only a tiny part of the end result of a product, even one as insignificant as the humble pencil. Pan back until you've framed the entire world economy, and it's hard not to marvel at the wonder and miracle of capitalism's invisible hand.
But as you might have guessed, the miracle of modern capitalism is lost on Thwaites and the eco-arts websites celebrating his experiment. He sees his project as a condemnation of trade, technology, and mutually beneficial exchange, not a celebration of it (note: after the publication of this article, Thwaites objected to this characterization of his position). Thwaites writes:
It's a peculiar kind of "helplessness" that enables us to benefit from the shared labor of millions of workers and the collected knowledge of millions of people accumulated over hundreds of years by merely traveling to the nearest Wal-Mart or appliance store, or, better yet, by merely clicking the mouse on a computer a few times and having the toaster (or, for that matter, groceries, or clothing, or medicine) brought directly to our homes.
And where Read expressed awe at the way so many people worked together—motivated only by self-interest—to produce not only pencils, but millions of other products that make our lives better, Thwaites oddly sees waste:
Of course, the "commercial extraction and processing of the necessary materials" makes a hell of a lot more than toasters, so Thwaites' suggestion that all of this energy is simply expended on toasting bread is absurd. Minerals and metals are extracted and processed to form millions of products. As for "pre-toaster" lives, most people who lived in the age before the toaster could expect to die by about age 40 (the toaster was invented in 1893, when life expectancy in the U.S. was about 43 years).
We don't live longer today because of toasters, of course, but the advances in technology, the division of labor, and the specialized knowledge that brought us the modern toaster have also given us the advances in food preparation and storage, medical technology, and other modern marvels that are the reason we live longer, healthier, and more fulfilling lives.
Read's essay and Thwaites' experiment (the latter unintentionally) also have lessons for the current economic crisis, one explicit and one implicit.
The implicit lesson is that the accumulated knowledge it takes to make both a pencil and a toaster has been aggregating for hundreds of years through the process of trial and error. No one person woke up one morning with the knowledge of how to smelt iron ore into steel. Every successful idea is built on dozens or hundreds or thousands of failures, successes, and improvements. Capitalism and the benefits we derive from it thrive on failure. When we stop letting companies fail, we smother both innovation and the free market's rewards system.
The explicit lesson is the futility of central planning. The surest sign a Soviet-era communist country had a government office of food distrubtion was the presence of food lines—again, no one person or even group of people staffing a government agency can possibly possess all of the knowledge required to move a food item from raw materials to the packaged goods in your cabinet. If there isn't a single person on the planet who can make a pencil or toaster without the aid of millions of others motivated by their own self-interest, it seems ludicrous to think, for example, that we can save the entire U.S. economy if only we can find the right all-knowing experts to use the power of government to "more properly" allocate resources.
All of which is to say that Thwaites' frustrations at making a toaster from scratch don't illustrate the "helplessness" capitalism has created in consumers, it illustrates the way free markets have liberated us. Instead of the day-to-day struggle to stay nourished or to collect wood to fuel the fire that cooks our food so it's safe to eat, developed economies have food that is plentiful, safe, and mostly delicious. That has freed us from substistence struggles to pursue other intersests, such as culture and the arts—even, inevitably, art projects that mock and denigrate the very economic processes that made art possible in the first place.
Radley Balko is a Reason senior editor.