It Takes a Free Market to Build a Toaster

It takes a lot of people to manufacture even the simplest products, so making a household appliance on your own shouldn’t be expected to be easy. It may even be impossible. That’s what the artist Thomas Thwaites is finding as he tries to make a toaster from scratch, traveling around the world to collect raw materials and refining his own petroleum for plastic moldings. Aware that he still won’t be able to accomplish his task without the help of modern appliances, like a microwave, Thwaites claims his experiment points to the “helplessness” of the modern consumer. At Reason Online, meanwhile, Radley Balko argues that our inability to make a toaster doesn’t mean we’re helpless at all, but rather that we’ve been liberated by free markets. (This is hardly a new argument; consider the pencil, and similar tales.) [%comments]


To make toast, all you need is fire and a means of holding the bread over the fire.


There is a whole passage about this topic in the book White Noise -- how, as individuals, our basic knowledge has greatly dropped compared to our prehistoric ancestors. Drop one of us in the middle of the woods and we'd be dead in a week, while our ancestors lived that way their entire lives.

Our society has specialized knowledge so we each don't have to have it. But in a situation where it might come in handy (i.e. how to start a fire), we're pretty helpless.


I realize the point of Thwaites' piece is to illustrate the relative helplessness of the modern person (not just consumer) - but I'm pretty certain that Mr. Thwaites would be quite capable of producing a piece of toast, even if he can't make an actual "toaster." It's called fire, look into it.

G Jeffery

It is pointless to dwell on how incompetent we would be if we were asked to step into the shoes of a pre-industrial person without advance preparation or training. For most of us, cheap fossil fuels make pre-industrial skills pointless to acquire . If we do face a continuing energy supply crisis, our society will adapt, although with a great deal of trouble and effort.

Tim H

Personally, without sophisticated medical technology I wouldn't need to worry about toast, as I'd simply be dead.


I'm not sure what this has to do with a free market. It's mostly about specialization and exchange of goods, which could also be done i a non free market (albeit less efficiently).


I bet Thaites is fully capable of holding a slice of bread over a fire. But is he capable of making a slice of bread?

Eric M. Jones

There are many things amiss here:

Ancient peoples specialized too. Materials and goods were traded by humans since prehistoric times. If Ogg were dropped into the middle of nowhere, he too would probably expire. Humans depend on humans; they are not solitary animals like groundhogs and badgers.

Native American individuals generally didn't make their own arrowheads, pots, moccasins or arrows.

So as civilizations advance, they make their own contributions and add specialized skills. It is true that the skills become narrower and narrower. When I need something, I'd prefer to deal with a specialist. If exiled to a desert island, I'd prefer a generalist friend to come along.

Nothing wrong with that.


The problem is he's trying to make a toaster based on industrial design. He should have looked at the basic principles and figured out that all he needed was a heating coil, thermostat, and bread holder. Any machinist will tell you, if you're going to make one of something, you would make it much differently than if you're going to make 1000 of it.

He could without a doubt toast bread using materials found in most yards in no time at all. Also if he's already okay with using a hair dryer or microwave to transform the materials, he might as well just toast bread with his iron, oven, or maybe even the hairdryer.

Walter Wimberly

The toaster is too complex - think electricity needed to make it run etc. Plus as many have mentioned - the toaster is convenience, not necessity for burning your bread.

A more interesting example of us losing general knowledge could be seen in this review ( of Little House on Prairie (book not show) and how Pa Ingles had to build his house from what he found on the land, without nails, mortar, etc.

Most of us lack the knowledge because it's easier and cheaper to run to Home Depot/hire someone else.

Doug B

Here here K @#1 and Jake@#3. When making a toaster becomes more difficult than making toast, just make toast!

wheat+rock = flour

Without a knife, I guess you couldn't technically have a slice, more like a chunk?


So, if we traded places with one of our ancestors, we couldn't survive. And if thye trade places with us, they couldn't survive.

Isn't this the plot of 50% of the live action Disney movies ever made?


What does he need plastic for? You can make an electric toaster, which I assume is what he's shooting for, without plastic. He'll have enough fun forming the metal and extruding wire to bother with stuff he *doesn't* need.


"...and refining his own petroleum for plastic moldings."

Boy, there's a cheat. He should be crushing his own dinosaurs miles beneath the earth's crust.


Oh, the stark ideology in the concluding statement:

The lesson I have to teach is this: Leave all creative energies uninhibited. Merely organize society to act in harmony with this lesson. Let society's legal apparatus remove all obstacles the best it can. Permit these creative know-hows freely to flow. Have faith that free men and women will respond to the Invisible Hand.

How about a parallel disertation on all the government activity needed to make that pencil. The roads. The schools. Oh, you get the idea. People love their mythology, in this case, the myth of the invisible hand.

Tim K

I don't think it necessarily takes a _free_ market (communists make toasters too), but markets certainly have helped push us upward on Maslow's hierarchy of needs.


I often hear of a lack of funding for the arts within the schools and outside the schools. I hear the bemoaning of a vibrant art community because artists can't support themselves.

And now, we have artists trying the make their own toasters as an art project ...

If only we could automate and/or industrialize art creation, think of all the time/money we'd save. But then if we'd had to trade places with our ancestors, we'd have no idea how to cave draw ...


not to mention he really should be generating his own electricity to power it....


"If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe." - Carl Sagan



I think most people would agree that you make a good point about government activities and the roads.

I think slightly less people but a solid majority would agree about the schools.

But most important is the military/police activities provided by government - otherwise, no toasters for you.