Did you get a toothbrush or toothpaste in your stocking for Christmas? Somewhere along the line, stocking stuffers became a lot about personal hygiene in many families and you wonder if someone is trying to send you a message! How about in your family?
But it’s easy to take that kind of a gift for granted in this day and age. As an economics professor, I actually talk about teeth and dental hygiene often. At the beginning of each semester, my students think I’m a little weird and perhaps obsessed with toothbrushes. At the end, my hope is that they have a newfound respect for the mighty little toothbrush (and they don’t question my sanity as much).
The toothbrush is a beacon of human creativity and flourishing that we take for granted. I believe this so deeply that at the end of each semester I give my students a small book, Are We Good Enough for Liberty?, by my friend Larry Reed. I wrap it up with their own toothbrush. It’s my little reminder to them that the very things that advance our health, elongate our lives, and make us happier are often little things that we take for granted every day.
Think about the last time you bought a toothbrush. Not the fancy electric kind, but just your average toothbrush. You were probably minding your own business, strolling down the toiletries aisle of your local grocery store or pharmacy when you thought, “Hey, maybe it’s time to throw away my old toothbrush.”
The act of purchasing this toothbrush is benign for most of us. You didn’t plan for weeks, scouring Amazon for consumer reviews. You probably didn’t call your mom first to ask her which toothbrush is best for you. You didn’t call your dentist for a consult before making this purchase.
You more likely scanned the options (of which there are many). Perhaps you chose based on the brand you like best, or the color, the bristle texture, or what was on sale. It took very little of your time and money to acquire the toothbrush.
This is different from buying a car or an airline ticket. Yet the toothbrush is an everyday item so important to your life and health. How could you not spend hours making sure you got the very best one?
Because when you live in a flourishing society, you don’t have to.
Sometimes You Really Can Trust Strangers
Not only is the toothbrush monumentally important for your health and longevity, it is an object made by people whom you do not know and will likely never meet and you PUT IT IN YOUR MOUTH (hopefully at least twice a day)!
That shocks me when I think about it. I have no idea who made my toothbrush, what the factory conditions are like, or how often the toothbrushes are evaluated for safety. I don’t know any of this, yet I trust this little item so much because I can.
When we live in a society where people can unleash their God-given creativity, we get things like toothbrushes. We can trust the strangers who produce these life-saving things we put in our mouths. We don’t have to inspect the factory or know the toothbrush plant manager to trust the item. This is because market trade allows us to trust strangers. This sort of trust frees us from having to make toothbrushes (and other items we might not be skilled at making) on our own.
You Have Something George Washington Never Owned
When we discuss these things in class, I often ask my students what they have that George Washington didn’t. He had many things that most of us don’t: the title of President of the United States of America, a large farm, lots of resources, etc.
But George didn’t have a toothbrush, or floss, or mouthwash. All you will ever have to do is imagine that—you won’t have to experience it—because of the productive energy of strangers who wake up in the morning to provide you with things like toothbrushes.
We are freed from having to figure things out—especially things that are outside our skill set—when we can rely on the creative talents of strangers. As the production and technology of these products advance over time, they cost less. The reason you don’t do an Amazon review for your basic toothbrush is that the cost of making the “wrong choice” is very low. It is also because products improve over time.
Free societies afford us the luxury of the toothbrush and many others things. These items free our time so that we can serve others with our gifts. They also ensure that rich and poor alike benefit from these innovations.
The next time you brush your teeth or receive the gift of a new toothbrush, remember how liberated you are and be humbled by the fact that free markets both allow us to serve and be served by others.
Editor’s note: Read more about economic ideas that lead to a flourishing society in Be Fruitful & Multiply: How Economics is Necessary for Making God-Pleasing Decisions.
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