The People on the Move

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There are
moments in history when the people are on the move, consistent
with the logic of history, and no force on earth can stop them.
You can see it in the images of Russians in 1990 pulling down
cast-iron statues of Lenin. You can see it in the images of the
Romanian people charging Ceausescu’s palace in 1989.

And I just
saw it last night at Bed, Bath, and Beyond as the people raided
the towers of K-cups holding coffee and tea to go into the Keurig
coffee maker that is the blazing-hot item for the holidays (second
only to our new pocket
paperback of Human Action
).

To understand
why the Keurig coffee maker is firing up the forces of history
in a progressive direction, we need to reflect on the dynamics
of the relentless technological trend from the collective to the
individual. In ancient times, bathing, for example, was a community
activity: one pool of water that all people would visit. With
technological progress came the family tub, in which people would
dunk themselves one after another. In modern times, we each fill
our own bath or take an individual shower.

So it is
with phones, which, when first invented, were found one per community
in the general store. Then there were party lines that several
households would share. Then the phone came to the single-family
home. Finally, the process of individuation culminated in the
pocket cell phone, with one phone number per person. And so it
is all over the world, and throughout human history, provided
there is the freedom to innovate, produce, and distribute.

It’s true
with books too. There was the Library of Alexandria for the whole
world. Then there were public libraries for whole cities. Then
we progressed to private libraries in homes. Now we long for the
ultimate individuation: libraries on our cell phones and books
we can carry on our person. This relentless push to fulfill the
demands of individualism is the driving force of human history.

And so it
is with coffee. For too long we’ve lived with a community form
of delivery. Whatever collectivist pot was made for the whole
group is what we drank. Never mind that it is burned from the
heating pad. Never mind that it is too strong or too weak, too
dark or too light, or that it is just plain gross. Never mind
that the preparation and cleanup requires that we stare at unappetizingly
soaked coffee grounds that clog our sinks and stink up our trash.
It was what we had, and we made do.

Then came
Starbucks and other specialized shops. Here we could order what
we wanted and every drink was prepared fresh and according to
our specifications. We are all, after all, individuals, each of
us with different tastes, desires, and demands. When given the
chance to express our wishes, we take it, and therein lies a great
entrepreneurial opportunity for those who are daring and creative
enough, and willing to take on the responsibility for giving history
a push forward.

In retrospect,
the whole Keurig mania seems perfectly obvious, even inevitable.
We want Starbucks in our homes. We want endless variety. We want
it to be fast. We do not want to wake up to the shattering sound
of coffee beans in a horrible grinding machine. In fact, though
we had never thought of it before, we do not want to look at coffee
grounds, before or after they become soaked.

When you
first observe the K-cup that Keurig uses, your thought might be:
this is ridiculously inefficient. Why would anyone take a tiny
amount of coffee and package it in plastic with a complicated
internal filtering system and waste foil to cover the top just
to produce a single cup of coffee? But you know what? History
is not about some outsider’s view of what is or is not efficient
according to some preset calculus. History is about the ideas
and preferences of real human beings.

K-cups also
owe their success to a software-style model of development. Keurig
developed the hardware and sold it (and its K-cup patent) to Green
Mountain Coffee Roasters. The company might have then decided
to cash in on its monopoly privileges but GMCR seemed to understand
that there are more profits to be made through liberality than
restriction. It licensed many different companies to produce the
K-cup firmware, so that now there is a gigantic market for these
things, and even a market for contraptions to display them.

When the
patent expires in 2012, the price of the K-cup will probably fall
but the blow to GMCR will be minimal (as
this blogger argues
) because so many are already competing
for market share. Note too that the mainstreaming of the K-cup
came only after this liberalization; only as recently as 2007,
when you only found these coffee makers in upscale law firms,
was the company still hammering knock-off cup makers with lawsuits.

When the
patent expires next year, all bets are off. I fully predict that
the next generation will never see another coffee ground, never
have to deal with grungy wet filters, any more than people who
eat bacon today have to watch pigs being rounded up and slaughtered.
The division of labor will kick in so that consumers have only
one job to do: drink great coffee according to their own individual
preferences.

It’s expensive,
you say, even three or five times as much as buying grounds and
beans in bulk. So it is. Cell phones are expensive. Baths are
expensive. Toilet paper is expensive, and so is shampoo, deodorant,
beef, and clothing from the department store. Some things that
make life wonderful are worth paying for. That’s the whole point
of the material world, isn’t it? To make life wonderful?

Here’s the
best part. Consider how this celebratory episode in capitalist
decadence has been marketed. We are led to believe that this technology
is European (fashionable people somehow love burned-out, low-growth
economies) when in fact the company that owns it is American.
And notice that all of the marketing vaguely hints at a PC sensibility.
The word "green" appears everywhere. Paul Newman (don’t
we just love everything this guy makes?) sponsors his own K-cups.
People on the packages are doing things like standing around trees
on green hills. Surely this ridiculous excess is all very ecofriendly.
Surely it is! The genius of capitalism is never more on display
than in the last few years when we’ve seen how the private sector
can even sell anticapitalism and make the big bucks.

Prepare
the landfills for mountains of used K-cups because that it is
what is headed our way. And when they are full, we can cover them
with dirt and start again, and do this again and again until the
invention of the Keurig coffee maker recedes into memory as just
another landmark in the long struggle to leave the state of nature
and climb to ever-higher stages of the great chain of being. At
each stage, we can easily observe the path from the collective
to the individual and also revel in the lovely irony that it is
precisely our uniqueness that unites us all in the common cause
of defending the freedom to buy and sell, which is the driving
force of history.

As for the
wonders of the pocket edition of Human Action, don’t get
me started.

This appeared
on Mises.org.

December
6, 2010

Jeffrey
Tucker [send him mail]
is editorial vice president of www.Mises.org.

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