Capitalism can be good for your teeth

I hope all my readers are familiar with the idea of the hedonic treadmill and capitalisms relentless push for new markets. The first is the idea that you’re never happy and that each desire fulfilled is soon replaced with a new one. The other describes the way you want an iPad now when before you didn’t because it didn’t exist. Supply creates its own demand but never makes you happy.

torches of freedomSometimes capitalists search for new markets is altogether more sinister. In the 1920s cigarettes were seen as masculine and unbecoming of a lady, associated with louche behaviour and loose morals. Anyone familiar with Adam Curtis’s documentaries will have heard of Edward Bernays. The nephew of Sigmund Freud he turned his uncle’s insights into the  human mind to marketing and successfully got women smoking. A new market was created, new capital and workers were employed and tobacco companies’ bottom line fattened.

That was when capitalism was bad for your teeth. Sometimes it can be good. In India people tend to only brush their teeth in the morning. To brush in the evening just seems a bit pointless. Brushing once a day is better than nothing but you’re still very likely to need teeth pulled and develop gum disease.

Enter Unilever. Unilever is one of the largest firms in the world and they’re in the toothpaste business (not to mention detergent, bovril, petroleum products, ice cream, hair gel…). Just like Edward Bernays planned on doubling cigarette consumption by getting women smoking, Unilever are planning on doubling the amount of tooth paste consumed in India. That, needless to say, is a lot of extra toothpaste to sell and everyone involved in those extra transactions will be very happy.

One four levels this is interesting. Two nominally left wing, two nominally right wing.

First of all, even simple information is “expensive.” Finding out that you need to brush your teeth twice a day and finding out that this information is valuable is difficult. A lot of writing on economics assumes that information is easy to find and distribute but it is not. A lot of public effort in producing and distributing information is necessary. Secondly, behaviour is sticky. I don’t want to bang on about how people are irrational but they are. Even knowing how important brushing is people still don’t. 

Thirdly, the economy is fiendishly complex. Some of you might care about the dialectic but I bet none of you care about the Indian toothpaste market. Hayek had this right, a more distributed approach to collecting information and organising action has its advantages. Lastly, the profit motive is not all bad. Unilever is full of people who care about health but it is also full of accountants. Together they’re able to invest in marketing in India to increase toothpaste penetration and make the world better for everyone.

The hedonic treadmill may roll on and on, but there’s nothing in the world worse than toothache.

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