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3D Printing Will Break the Malthusian Box—Again

The charges leveled against capitalism tend to fall into three categorical arguments, which are often blended together: 1) capitalism increases disparities of wealth between the working class and elites; 2) it uses up valuable resources; and 3) it makes people greedy. All three of these claims derive from the premise of limited resources: there is a finite amount of x, which must be divided among members of society, who therefore fight over it, and as x gets used up, fighting becomes more violent. In this tale, the rich always get richer as the poor get poorer, unless workers revolt by sword, picket or vote. Those who think in this way frequently see history through the lens of class struggle, and interpret current events as a narrative in which wealthy elites seek to oppress the virtuous poor in order to protect their wealth and gain more. This view also leads to the characterization of mankind as a sort of cancer, consuming and destroying one place after another in an endless conquest for resources. These narratives dominate the modern film industry. Scarcity is a universal fact, and indeed provides the motivating principle of economics. However, scarce does not mean static; we should not forget that the economy is a dynamic and ever-changing organism. This mistake is everywhere, and it helps to know how to identify it. Forecasters take a situation, assume all conditions will continue, chart the trajectory and predict disaster. But they do not account for change. Every day brings new events, new knowledge and new innovation. 18th century economist Thomas Malthus feared that the population of England would surpass the rate of food production and lead to starvation. It didn’t happen, because people found new ways to increase food production. Just a few decades ago, entomologist Paul Ehrlich advanced a similar argument, claiming that the earth’s resources could not sustain population growth, and that millions of people would begin to die of starvation. Economist Julian L. Simon wagered that any five commodities, chosen by Ehrlich, would be cheaper after ten years. Despite a global population growth of 800 million between 1980 and 1990, all five commodities—copper, chromium, nickel, tin and tungsten—were cheaper, and life-expectancy increased. The environmentalist movement, while having many valid concerns, is wrought with this kind of thinking. Fears that the world is about to hit “peak oil,” were common in the 1970s, and many expected a global energy crisis that never materialized. Now, decades later, new technologies are revealing vast reserves that can sustain current oil use for many more decades. Combined with other alternatives, we can expect our grandchildren to enjoy cheaper and cleaner energy than we have today. In the movie Jurassic Park, the character played by Jeff Goldblum is told that the park’s unique “attractions” cannot mate because they are all female. Unsatisfied with this solution, he says “life finds a way.” It may be a strange way to illustrate the free market, but there are many parallels. The market is, after all, an organic ecosystem made of millions of living, thinking, evolving agents. Markets “find a way” by innovating. Sometimes it is by necessity, but it is frequently a product of imagination and inspired possibilities. From time to time, a new idea comes around that completely changes the rules of the game. Like the printing press, the automobile and the computer, these innovations tend to bring unimaginable opportunity to average, working-class people. And they truly change the world. Today we are witnessing the birth of yet another world-changing technology in 3D printing. The ability to create physical objects through computer systems has been around for many years in the manufacturing industry, but new developments are putting this technology within the consumer’s reach. Furthermore, current generation 3D printers are far less limited than their predecessors. I recall a time when listening to music beyond the radio required driving to a music store and paying sticker price for a CD with a particular set of songs. Today, I simply buy the songs I want, from the site I want, and download them. I do not have to approach a magazine stand or a bookstore to read the stories I enjoy (though I still do anyway). Likewise, I will soon be able to download and print many household items. Love that silverware set you found online? Download and print. Accidentally broke the foot off your favorite chair? Print a new one. Got an idea for an invention that people will love, but can’t afford the start-up costs? No problem—just design it on the computer and print one for each purchase, or let people print it themselves. The possibilities are endless. How exactly the world is about to change is impossible to tell, but we should expect two significant developments. First, many stores will close or significantly downsize brick-and-mortar operations, opening up more land for green spaces, housing, and new businesses. Second, average consumers will become producers at a much higher rate. The digital age has already created millions of entrepreneurs that could not have successfully started a business before, but that world is about to explode. In other words, 3D printing is about to enable more people to do even more things with their time and creativity—that is the essence of a more prosperous world. We live in a time where a high-school dropout earning $7.50 an hour as a janitor can watch lectures by the best professors at the Harvard Business School. A first-generation college student has access to the world’s information at his or her fingertips. A retired woman who has never travelled beyond state lines can see the world through Google Earth or see her grandchildren across the country on video chat. It is easy to take for granted that we already live in a miraculous world. And 3D printing is yet another technology that will open up boundless opportunities to the common person. There will always be people warning of limitations. They will say there are too many people consuming too many things, and that we must slow down or retreat. But today’s march of the free market is still as full as ever, with dreamers and innovators who will always find ways to shatter our preconceived limitations and pave the way for a flourishing humanity.