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The Importance of Tools


It is the pompous delusion of politicians that they significantly improve the way the world works. Nonsense. Through taxation, rules, regulations, and war, politicians historically have destroyed people’s lives and obstructed their economic progress. The real work of the world — the way we live our daily lives — has been changed by tools and by the people who create them.

Just listen to all of the major American politicians today. They talk endlessly of policies, of what government can do.

But what can government do? It cannot create wealth; it is constrained to taking money from some and giving it to others. And it cannot create jobs; it can only take jobs from one sector of the economy and reallocate them to another.

Wealth can only be created through the voluntary interactions between people. When two people trade, their respective positions improve — both sides are wealthier as a result of the exchange.

And real jobs — jobs which actually add to the economy, and not just shift resources — are created by people who produce products or services that people want and are willing to pay for.

It is tools — not politicians — that have improved the world.

Consider some historical examples. Perhaps the first great tool of change was the horsecollar or ox yoke. It was the tool which first enabled human beings to use a non-human source for energy. Even the discovery of fire seems pallid beside this.

Fire did not become a source for energetic work, as a replacement for the ox, until years and years later, when technologies of smelting and then the steam engine were developed. Smelting brought the Iron Age. The steam engine brought the Industrial Revolution. Now those were changes that improved the lot of mankind.

Three hundred years before the birth of Christ, Euclid set forth his elegant Elements. This singular act makes it more practical to measure land for ownership, design better sails, make navigation more dependable. Euclid could be said to have opened the door to the modern world.

In about 1000 A.D., Venice consolidated its empire in the Adriatic. Ho hum — just more empire building made lofty with some new political rhetoric. At the same time, the mathematician Sridhara, and perhaps dozens more, proposed the concept of zero in number theory. Zero is one important reason you can count to twenty without taking off your shoes. Cardinal Richelieu became the famed power behind the throne of France in 1619. At the same time, William Harvey discovered the way that blood circulates in the human body. Which event resulted in greater benefits to humanity?

In the 1660s, there were at least 50 major treaties and wars. Politics was sweeping the earth. At the same time, Isaac Newton described differential calculus. In some distant future, private space travellers will owe their journeys, in no small part, to Newton and his analysis.

In 1760, the British imposed the Stamp Act on the British colonists. About the same time, James Watt perfected the condenser that made the steam engine possible, the Industrial Revolution inevitable, and America a powerhouse of production.

And score a big one for the power of ideas in 1776: The American Revolution — and its concept of individual liberty — brought forth a social-political idea that matched the world-changing ideas of science and technology. For it created the environment for free people to develop the scientific and technological breakthroughs that ultimately benefitted mankind in such enormous ways.

The French Revolution? As a world-changing force, it cannot stand against, for example, Eli Whitney’s cotton gin or his development of the manufacturing technique of interchangeable parts for mass-produced machinery.

The United States government announced the Monroe Doctrine in 1823. In terms of human improvement, it cannot stand against Charles Babbage and his calculating machine. The government gave us the seeds for foreign intervention. Babbage gave us the beginnings of the computer. One tool stands above all the rest in changing our contemporary world the most. What is it? The internal combustion engine and all of the mobile vehicles and machines that it powers.

In 1903, Lenin and Trotsky formed the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Party. In America, the Wright brothers’ plane successfully flew. The Bolsheviks gave us a another form of despotism. The Wright brothers gave us the ability to fly.

In the 1930s, the Nazis won their 230-seat plurality in the Reichstag. Contemporaneously, Werner Karl Heisenberg was awarded a Nobel prize for the matrix theory of quantum mechanics.

In 1962, the United States government committed itself to intervening in Vietnam. That was also the year that Crick, Wilkins, and Watson received their Nobel prize for describing the molecular structure of DNA. Thanks to those three peaceful men, not to raging armies, the world will never be the same again. Through their endless quest for more power over the lives of more people, politicians historically have obstructed the progress of humanity. But fortunately for mankind, the human race has been characterized by practical, visionary men with new insights.

They — and the tools they made available to the rest of us — are responsible for the monumental benefits in people’s everyday lives.

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    Mr. Hess is a free-lance writer, and was a speechwriter for Barry Goldwater in 1964.