Friday, February 08, 2013

Celebrating Capitalism: Travel: From Torture to Joy

One of the benefits of capitalism can be seen through the lens of the transformation of travel.

Writes Jeffrey Tucker at the Laissez Faire Books:
The nature of travel is one of the most changed by the advent of the capitalist economy. For most of the human history, travel was something to dread and even avoid at all cost.

Just look at the term itself. The word travel shares the same Middle English root as the word travail, which means to toil or labor. The word in Middle English was travailen, which meant something deeply unpleasant. Looking even further back in time, we find the Latin slang word travailler, which means… to torture!

Indeed, through human history, traveling has usually been torture. If you see a movie set in the Middle Ages in which one person is traveling on his own and is not being forced to do so, you can pretty much assume it is untrue. No one traveled alone. If you did, you would certainly be robbed, beaten, enslaved, or killed. You always traveled in groups, and these groups had to include people who could protect you. There was no other way. Most people stayed put.

What about modern times? Everything has changed. As usual, we take it for granted.

Michael Graham Richard did some interesting research on travel times in the United States, based on the 1932Atlas of Historical Geography of the United States. What he found is quite revealing. It took people an entire day just to get out of New York. Going from New York to Georgia or Ohio took two weeks. If you wanted to get to Louisiana or Illinois, you had to set aside a full five weeks! That’s just to get from here to there.

But thanks to railways, all this changed half a century later. What used to take two weeks in 1800 took only a day or two by 1857. If you set aside a week, you could get to Texas — the travel time sliced to about 20% of what it was 50 years earlier. In a month, you could get to California, which was rather amazing by historical standards. Also, you wouldn’t typically be beaten, robbed, or killed, which was pretty great.

By 1932, modernity had arrived. You could go coast to coast in four days!

Of course, now you can do all of this in a few hours, thanks to planes and cars. And driving itself became more fun than ever. It’s one of the great changes in the history of the world: Travel went from torture to joy. And it happened because of technological advances working through a market system that serves people in their daily needs. Getting from here to there is one of the strongest needs that we humans have. It is what gets us all the things we rely on for the good life.

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