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Bourgeois Heroes

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The weed-wacker - a suburban staple The weed-wacker - a suburban staple

George Ballas died on June 25. Have you heard of him? Probably not. But you’ve certainly heard of – and likely used – his most famous invention: the weed-wacker. From the August Issue. By Donald Boudreaux.

In 1971, Ballas was inspired to invent this labor-saving device by watching the whirling discs of soapy mops in an automatic carwash.  Today, Ballas’s weed-wacker is a staple in suburban households throughout the land.  Yet not one in a million Americans knows of George Ballas or of the inspiration behind his hand-held lawn-care marvel.

Ballas’s lack of celebrity is a cause for both applause and regret.

We should applaud the fact that the inventor of a familiar and wonderfully useful device is less widely known than is the likes of Snooki Polizzi, because this very lack of fame means that useful inventions such as the weed-wacker, and the successful businesses built on them, are so exceedingly common in modern society that almost none of them are newsworthy.

Only if creativity of the sort that drove Ballas’s invention were rare would it be newsworthy.  Only if profitable products for the mass market were uncommon would their inventors’ names be widely known and celebrated.

But our world is so filled with creativity – and with countless successful businesses and consumer marvels that spring from it – that we understandably take this creativity and these marvels for granted.

We’re blessed to be blasé about these matters.

But we’d best also beware of being blasé.

One means that society uses to encourage certain behaviors of its members is praise – praise expressed in every medium from big marble statues to small simple talk.  The economic historian Deirdre McCloskey, in her book Bourgeois Dignity, goes so far as to credit the widespread praising of economic innovators and merchants for sparking the industrial revolution.  The emergence in 18th-century western Europe of generally favorable attitudes towards business activity – attitudes revealed chiefly in the way people spoke about such activity and about the men and women who carried it on – unleashed as never before humankind’s innovative genius.

The resulting torrent of innovation is arguably the greatest human achievement since the invention of agriculture.

For the first time in history, in those parts of the globe marked by capitalism parents came legitimately to expect never to suffer the death of a child; men for the first time came to expect never to suffer the death of a beloved wife giving birth to a child; starvation was conquered, as were commonly lethal ailments such as small pox, pneumonia, and dysentery; slavery was abolished; ordinary men and women escaped from flimsy and leaky huts made of mud or logs for sturdy homes with solid floors, roofs, and walls; education became  universally available, as did opportunities to earn a living doing something other than eking out survival on subsistence farms.

Today, most of even the poorest Americans are vaccinated against polio, have several changes of clean clothing, own automobiles, communicate in real time with family and friends hundreds of miles away, and, generally, enjoy a standard of living that was undreamed of just a few generations ago by all but the mightiest monarchs and wealthiest nobles.

This astounding prosperity is the result of capitalist innovation so abundant and unrelenting that individual innovators go unnoticed in the crowd of capitalist innovators – a fact that throws into relief the reason why we should also regret the anonymity of people such as George Ballas.

The abundance of innovation – and the great frequency with which innovation’s fruits are brought to market by successful businesses – conveys the mistaken impression that innovation “just happens” and that it’s no big deal.  Believing that innovation (and its translation into products for consumers) “just happens” encourages a dangerous indifference to the institutions that promote economic growth.

But innovation does not “just happen.”  3,500 generations of humans trod this earth before innovation of the sort that too many people today believe “just happens” first happened.

Today, Ballas’s weed-wacker is a staple in suburban households throughout the land.  Yet not one in a million Americans knows of George Ballas or of the inspiration behind his hand-held lawn-care marvel.

Historically, innovation that yields widespread prosperity is extraordinarily rare.  It must be encouraged.

Some of this encouragement comes from keeping taxation and regulation light, property rights secure, and systems of enforcing contracts and laws non-corrupt.

But it’s also necessary to celebrate people such as George Ballas, whose creativity and entrepreneurial gumption are the source of our prosperity.  We must not be misled by today’s sheer number of such entrepreneurs into thinking that their efforts are routine or easy or pre-programmed to happen regardless of society’s laws and attitudes.  They are not.

So let’s raise a glass to the George Ballases of the world – creative, entrepreneurial heroes!


Donald Boudreaux is Professor of Economics at George Mason University. He blogs at www.cafehayek.com

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