I have been rereading a large number of classics lately – literature, history, philosophy, economics, you name it. Among that list, of course, are Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman.
In rereading Friedman, I came across a very interesting description. Not so many years ago (a sliver of time in the history of mankind, let alone the unrecorded history), only the truly wealthy could afford things beyond subsistence. Because just about everything was manual labour, you had to be able to afford to pay others to do work that was too much for you to do on your own. Since almost everyone lived a subsistence existence, eking enough food out of the earth or animals to feed oneself and maybe their family, almost no one could afford to pay others to do other things. The few who could – the phrase “the one percent” would have been laughable, more likely the 0.01% – simply paid (or enslaved, since owning slaves was a form of wealth, and remains so in some parts of the world) others to maintain luxuries that we consider basic.
For a few examples:
- Central heating – nowadays, we turn on the heater; back then, you had to bring in wood, which was manually chopped, dragged to the home, stored for the winter, brought to the fireplace, and lit when appropriate. Only the truly wealthy could afford to pay others to do so. Everyone else simply carried as much wood as they could, or bartered their tiny surplus, if it existed, with a woodsman.
- Water – nowadays, we open the tap; back then, you had to go to the river or well, and drag in as much water as you needed, as well as heat it, if you could afford to. Only the truly wealthy could afford to pay others to do so.
- Entertainment – nowadays, we turn on the television, listen to the radio, or go to the Internet; back then, short of playing with a chicken’s head as a ball, which was only available shortly after you slaughtered one of your only three chickens, if you were lucky. Only the truly wealthy could afford to get real entertainment, by paying others to come to their homes and entertain them: dancers, troubadours, singers, etc.
Free-market capitalism and its attendant growth have created mass-market version of many of these items. The net results is the same: water vis plumbing and boilers, entertainment via devices, domestic heating (and air conditioning), etc.
One element that has largely escaped this revolution has been domestic cleaning. Vacuum cleaners certainly make it easier, and specialized cleaning solutions help, but home cleaning remains fundamentally a manual labour. What the free market has done, it has created sufficient wealth that all of the upper class, most of the upper-middle-class, and even much of the middle class can afford to pay others to do the manual labour for them once or twice a week. Nonetheless, it is not available to all, and for most of those it is a significant expense. It has not become automated and mass-market, in the way that plumbing, entertainment and heating (and countless other day-to-day “luxuries”) have.
On the domestic front, cleaning has become one of the only activities not to have undergone this revolution. As such, I am led to believe that it may be the next major front. It is probably this philosophy that has led companies like iRobot, the makers of Roomba and Scooba, to create their robots. I do not know if they will succeed on a massive scale, although their initial results are limited but promising. I am positive, however, that they have picked a market ripe for automation and disruption.