The Astonishing Advancements in Affordable Aluminum Foil

My favorite social-media post in recent weeks (from a Seattle-based engineer named Grant Slatton) seems esoteric, but is quite insightful: “We don’t talk enough about how insane aluminum foil is. Imagine telling some ancient person we have so much abundance in our time that we use very thin metal as a disposable paper-like wrapping and it costs essentially nothing.”
Seriously, Americans are so used to our unparalleled abundance that we don’t pause and appreciate what this means in the context of human existence. An NPR story on the history of aluminum notes that “it used to be more valuable than gold.” The National Park Service explained that in 1884, “The U.S. government wanted to have a precious metal cap for the (Washington) monument, so it chose aluminum.” I used it to cover up ordinary Christmas dinner leftovers.
At that above-mentioned dinner, we had so much food—of the quality that would have suited a pope, emperor, or king—that it was almost embarrassing. I know inflation is taking its toll, and groceries are pricier than they’ve been in ages, but our middle-class family enjoyed prime rib, ham, fine wine, all the trimmings, and pastries from an artisanal bakery. The main complaint I’ve heard from friends was they had so much food they didn’t know what to do with it.
Spending time on social media can distort one’s perspective, but I’ve nevertheless been reading an endless array of nitpicking complaints about every real and imaginary problem. This “there ought to be a law” mentality has gotten out of hand, with many people moaning about every aspect of life that doesn’t operate to perfection or every endeavor that doesn’t benefit everyone equally. It’s as if we’ve forgotten that everything has costs and benefits.
One common category of complaint: We have too much, we spend too much, we’re too wasteful. This is often the province of environmentalists, who—like Puritans from the past—want to reduce Americans’ astounding standard of living and make life less pleasant in the name of some ill-defined greater good. From a religious perspective, I understand the spiritual aspect of suffering. But it’s not an appropriate public-policy goal to promote more of it.
Just as 19th century robber barons would be astounded that we use aluminum as a throwaway, struggling people throughout history (and in less-affluent nations today) would be shocked we spend so much time, wealth, and effort making life costlier and more difficult. Obsessing over plastic bag use, gas stoves, electric vehicles, fish ladders, nearly immeasurable pollutants, and cow emissions might be justifiable—but it certainly smacks of “first world problems.”
I like the aluminum foil story because it’s one small example of our bounty. It reminds me of a booklet called “I, Pencil,” which is an “autobiography” of a pencil by libertarian writer Leonard Read. The tract points to the complexity of assembling and selling this simple, inexpensive device, all of which occurs without central planning: “The absence of a master mind, of anyone dictating or forcibly directing these countless actions which bring me into being.”
When I started writing this column a couple of hours ago, I ordered online a Bluetooth adapter for my old pickup truck. It arrived shortly after I finished. Forget about the complexity of the device itself, but think about what’s involved in delivering that $30 item to my door in three hours. Not long ago, I ordered a custom motorcycle seat from a shop in India—and the perfectly fitting, quality product arrived at my doorstep nine days later for the grand sum of $109. If you’re not amazed, then you’re probably, as the saying goes, letting the perfect become the enemy of the good.
These are results of a relatively free society and relatively free trade. They stem from human ingenuity—and that much-maligned profit motive. If it weren’t for the chance to profit, no one would take the time to sew together a seat or ship it across the globe. I wouldn’t have written this piece. We’d be living lives that are “nasty, brutish and short,” as Thomas Hobbes wrote in “Leviathan.”
Please don’t send an email reminding me of the world’s myriad problems. That’s not in dispute. But it’s frustrating when moralistic social critics lament some “crisis,” but offer no context. Because they fail to understand the “invisible hand” that Read championed, these complainers offer “solutions” (e.g., more government) that usually make matters worse. They rarely acknowledge good news, such as dramatic and ongoing declines in worldwide poverty.
I do enough complaining, so don’t take my hectoring personally. But as we spend another year on the top side of the ground, I urge us all to spend more time appreciating and less time whining. We should recognize that the world’s advancements—even such little things as disposable aluminum foil—are mostly the result of human ingenuity and freedom.
This column was first published in The Orange County Register.