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The People on the Move

Mises Daily: Thursday, December 02, 2010 by

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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.

Jeffrey Tucker reads the new pocket edition of Human Action

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 to 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.

Human Action Pocket Edition

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.