Thursday, September 20, 2007

In support of fads

Fads tell us something important about freedom and the common good. On one level, of course, fads are pretty silly. People get caught up in a hairstyle, or a gadget, or a silly activity or kind of music. There’s a stampede in one direction, and a couple weeks, or years later, it’s forgotten. And I certainly support the traditional, the perennial. I often argue for the superiority of the old. A book, a piece of music, or even an idea that has lasted a century or more has proved itself worthy of continued interest, while the fads of today may be popular only because they are current. Most of them will not stand the test of time.

But fads serve an important purpose. I was thinking this morning about the wipers on the rear window of my car. Mostly I was thinking how useless they are. I thought, from the car maker’s perspective, they can add this dinky little feature for minimal expense, and it gives the (false) impression of luxury. But in fact, it does remarkably little good. At least over the summer, I don’t think I’ve used it once. Rear wipers are, to some extent, a fad: just something that everyone likes right now, and that may not stand the test of time.

But “test” is a good word. For now, rear wipers come standard just because they are trendy. But in fact, society, the “Market” as a whole, is trying something out. For now, they are just a fad, but whether this fad lasts depends on whether the Market finds them useful. Ten years from now, there will or will not be rear wipers to the extent that they have been found worth having.

They may prove useful for reasons their inventors had not considered. I’m just conjecturing, but maybe the inventor thought they’d be helpful for cleaning off bird poop, or for rain when you’re sitting in traffic. Maybe he didn’t think they’d be useful, he just thought they sounded cool, in a James-Bond kind of way. And maybe people will find that rear wipers are not worth having for any of these reasons, but they really come in handy when you’re defrosting—just for those couple minutes when you first start the car, a few months out of the year. And maybe people will determine that the investment is worth it, because defrosting the rear window is really a hassle.

I’m just conjecturing. But that’s the point. The free market allows ideas to be tested out. Rather than a centralized authority, whether he be an inventor or a government regulator, making all the decisions, the market spreads the test out to the teeming millions. The inventor may be wrong about why something is useful. The manufacturer may never even know why he is packaging a given feature. But that’s irrelevant. The market allows society to determine what products are more useful, and makes those products available.

And it does so, as the great economist and social theorist Friedrich Hayek pointed out, by making “planning” more broad. In common parlance, a “planned” economy is planned by some central authority. But in fact, the free market is much better planned, because it allows many more people to do the planning, bringing in a million times more insight. No one person has to understand everything, because the market coordinates the decision-making of the millions.

This is especially important considering the complexity of human needs. To push the limits, let’s take the example of the hula hoop, fad of all fads. This one failed. But what was the purpose of the fad? Society was “trying out” a new form of exercise and entertainment. At the same time, I think, adult society was “trying out” bridge. It found that bridge well-suited the needs of that time, providing married couples, or men at work, or ladies’ clubs, a way to interact and to use their minds. But bridge, we might say, is a “secondary” activity. Bridge, or any game, “serves” society not just because of it’s own inherent excellence, but also because of other things that are already in place: ladies’ clubs, small groups at the office, the need of couples to interact (arguably a product of suburbanization, where people no longer see each other on the streets). Bridge was also valuable, perhaps, because of the particular needs of the mind at that time. It “fit” the strategic requirements of the age.

Nordic Trak is a contemporary example. Nordic Trak provides a solitary, low-impact, cardiovascular workout. It is a fad, maybe passing by now. But it was valuable for people who had back problems, because of their sedentary lifestyle, and heart problems, because they don’t get out much. Its solitary nature might serve an age that likes to watch tv, but it also might serve an age that likes to have some meditative time alone. I don’t know which need sold more Nordic Traks, and no one really needs to know. The point is, it was a fad not just because it was stupid and didn’t stand the test of time, but also because it served the particular needs of a particular times. It stood, we might say, upon other fads. When those fads (low-impact cardiovascular exercise, alone time) pass, so will the Nordic Trak—not because the Nordic Trak is bad, but because it was good for that particular circumstance.

Last example: the jump rope. Perhaps the jump rope has achieved its greatest and most lasting popularity among black girls. They like it, maybe, because it allows them to spend time outside (which is arguably a central part of black culture, and certainly melds with the urban life) and get some exercise. It is rhythmic, and lends itself to black dance and poetic-improv traditions. It gives the spotlight to one girl at a time, which plays to the desire, both universally human and particularly black, for virtuoso excellence. In these ways, it has a lot in common with rap and jazz. But jump rope allows a group of girls, possibly of very different ages, to hang out, serving particular needs of the black community.

Who could have come up with this? Someone started selling jump ropes, maybe for white suburban kids, maybe for individual adult fitness. Or maybe not—maybe some black girls just found a rope lying around. (But where do you find ropes lying around? I don’t know.) No central planner could have deduced that jump rope would serve this demographic so well. It had to be tried. The hula hoop was short-lived. Jump rope lasted, for a certain group. And it will last as long as the particular needs it serves are in place, or until something better comes along.

That’s no small thing. Or rather, it’s the kind of small thing that really matters. Windshield wipers have made life safer and easier for millions of people; rear wipers may serve a small niche, and they may pass. Hula hoops didn’t go anywhere, but jump ropes have proved of enduring value for the health and well-being of a particular underserved community. Bridge was great in one period (when people felt isolated and needed mental stimulation), NordicTrak in another (when people wanted isolation and physical exercise). Who would have known? Certainly no central planner. These are all fads, most of them dependent on other societal trends; planning ahead for such things is enormously complicated. They have been subjected to testing by the masses, and the masses have passed judgment, voting primarily with their pocketbooks. And so fads have proved to be the most intelligent sort of planning. Through fads freedom serves the common good.