Donald J. Boudreaux: Economic progress, through clear eyes
I recently had cataract surgery on my right eye. (The surgery on my left eye takes place next week). In the United States today this procedure is now performed annually — and nearly always successfully — on about 3.6 million patients. So it’s no surprise that when my ophthalmologist advised me to have this surgery, she assured me that it is “routine.”
And routine it was. I arrived at the surgery center at 6:45 a.m. and was comfortably back home less than three hours later. I experienced no pain or even discomfort. Yet that morning a virtual stranger skillfully removed the natural, cloudy lens from my eye and replaced it with a clear artificial lens.
How amazing is that?! And how amazing is the fact that this procedure today is routine?
Even more amazing is the fact that for the first time since I was a kindergartener 55 years ago I will soon have 20/20 vision. Following the upcoming surgery on my left eye, my new permanent artificial lenses will ensure that I’ll never again need glasses or contact lenses to correct my myopia.
Wow. Just wow.
The immense prosperity of the modern world is easy to overlook because we swim in it daily. Supermarkets stuffed with affordable foods; clean water flowing from our household faucets and showerheads; electricity coursing safely through the walls of our homes and offices to power our refrigerators, air conditioners and computers; smartphones loaded with apps; jet travel. Who among us today pauses to marvel at these daily wonders?
But every now and then we encounter a marvel that gobsmacks us. Such for me is my cataract surgery.
Also reflect on this fact: Like almost all technological advances, today’s routine implantation of permanent artificial lenses destroys particular jobs. Never again will I and millions of other Americans buy the contact lenses and contact-lens cleaning solution that we regularly bought for decades. That means fewer jobs for workers who make contact lenses and the solution that cleans them. It means fewer jobs also for the clerks and managers at retailers such as 1-800-CONTACTS.
Is this job destruction to be lamented? At one level, yes. Losing a job because of changes in the way that we as consumers spend our money is usually an unpleasant experience. But at a deeper level, such job destruction shouldn’t be lamented. The reason is that such job destruction is a sign — and a source — of the economic progress that creates our modern prosperity.
If today no particular jobs are destroyed by market forces, then today no economic progress has occurred. No less costly source of supplies has been found. No new technique for increasing worker productivity has been implemented. No person has been blessed with a better way to meet his and his family’s needs. And because no worker is released from an existing job, no workers are available to perform new jobs in cutting-edge industries.
Today is just like yesterday. And if tomorrow is just like today, tomorrow will be just like yesterday.
Be careful before concluding that such stagnation is an acceptable price to pay to protect today’s workers from losing particular jobs. Unless you’d be content with your life today if your grandfather had successfully halted all economic growth in, say, 1968, you almost certainly do not really want to halt the job destruction that is inseparable from economic progress.
Donald J. Boudreaux is a professor of economics and Getchell Chair at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His column appears twice monthly.