Who Is Building the Private, Peer-to-Peer Marketplace? An Interview with Sam Patterson

Sam Patterson ( is an author and technology enthusiast from Virginia. He has written about decentralized technologies such as bitcoin and OpenBazaar. Sam recently cofounded a company called OB1 to help build the decentralized marketplace OpenBazaar.

The Freeman: Your project, OpenBazaar, has been awarded $1 million in seed funding so far. Congratulations. What is it, and what does it do?

Patterson: OpenBazaar is an open source project to create a decentralized marketplace online where anyone in the world can buy or sell any goods or services with anyone else in the world, for free, using bitcoin. A few of the core project members (including myself) recently started a company called OB1, which received the funding in order to hire full-time developers and make OpenBazaar a reality.

Online commerce today is mostly centralized; companies own websites where users visit to buy and sell things. Those companies charge fees, monitor their users’ data, and censor their transactions based on their own rules and on behalf of the government.

OpenBazaar is different. Instead of relying on a centralized third party, trades occur directly between buyers and sellers. Users install peer-to-peer software on their computers, similar to bitcoin or BitTorrent, and this connects them to other users running the same software. They transact in bitcoin. Since there’s no middleman, there are no fees, no collection of data, and no censorship of trade.

The Freeman: Some people will object to OpenBazaar by saying it’s not transparent — that it will help criminals thrive. How do you answer such charges?

Patterson: Some have inaccurately labeled us as an evolved Silk Road — an underground drug marketplace. This is absolutely false, for many reasons. The Silk Road was centralized and run by a small group for profit. It catered to a specific group of people who traded in illicit goods.

In contrast, OpenBazaar is a decentralized marketplace, not run for profit. It doesn’t cater to any group, or any type of trade, but is open for all users to buy and sell anything they want with each other. It’s a much bigger vision than these narrow dark markets.

We expect that use of OpenBazaar will reflect markets in society. There will be some users who engage in activity that is morally or legally objectionable, but the vast majority of users will be engaging in positive and constructive trade. We don’t know exactly how people will use OpenBazaar to better their lives, but we believe that it will, and we can’t wait to see it happen.

The Freeman: What are the implications of this kind of technology for the world’s poorest people?

Patterson: Most of the existing centralized market platforms that I mentioned earlier don’t focus on the developing world, or even if they do, the payment methods used aren’t accessible for many of the world’s poor. Bitcoin requires no credit checks to use; an Internet connection and computer are all that’s needed. OpenBazaar is the same as bitcoin in this sense. It costs nothing to join and use, and the trade is direct between buyers and sellers; there are no middlemen to take a cut. We hope that by lowering the barriers to entry for online trade, OpenBazaar and bitcoin will bring millions of new users into the online economy.

The Freeman: What are the implications of this kind of technology for most of our readers — that is, wealthier Westerners?

Patterson: Establishing a protocol, client, and network for people to directly engage in trade with each other allows for more efficient transactions. Sellers on eBay who use PayPal regularly pay up to 10 percent fees on each sale. Those are 0 percent on OpenBazaar.

OpenBazaar is also more private. Instead of the centralized platforms getting all the information about your buying or selling habits, now that information is only available to the parties you directly engage with.

Also, if some of your readers are already bitcoin users, OpenBazaar is the first decentralized platform for them to spend their decentralized money. Many value decentralized technology simply because it takes power away from the gatekeepers in our world.

The Freeman: How do you market OpenBazaar? How do you build culture around it?

Patterson: We haven’t needed to market OpenBazaar so far. The bitcoin community is very excited to see it built. Once we look to go beyond bitcoin users and into the broader e-commerce space, then we’ll need to consider how to market ourselves. Likely, it will be around the lack of fees, which is compelling to retailers who have small margins.

Our culture is one that supports free trade and voluntary interactions in society. The ability to engage in trade directly with someone in person is a great thing, and it’s a shame that hasn’t been possible online — until now.

The Freeman: How flexible, robust, and “anti-fragile” is this system — especially with respect to predatory states who will likely try to foil its development?

Patterson: OpenBazaar is very robust, similar in design to bitcoin or BitTorrent. Because it’s run locally on users’ computers, there’s no central point of failure to attack. We don’t anticipate that OpenBazaar will face opposition from governments any more than other online platforms have; they have the same tools at their disposal to go after individual storeowners. But they cannot take down the whole system at once, unlike the existing platforms.

The Freeman: When will OpenBazaar be ready to use?

Patterson: We plan on publishing the first full release in November this year. The code is open source so developers can view it any time at our Github.

The Freeman: Thank you for speaking with us, Sam.

The Freeman

The Freeman is the flagship publication of the Foundation for Economic Education and one of the oldest and most respected journals of liberty in America. For more than 50 years it has uncompromisingly defended the ideals of the free society.

Amazon Liberates Readers: The Digital Era Creates Gardens without Gardeners by Stewart Dompe

Science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin thinks Amazon represents everything that’s wrong with capitalism:

If you want to sell cheap and fast, as Amazon does, you have to sell big. Books written to be best sellers can be written fast, sold cheap, dumped fast: the perfect commodity for growth capitalism.

The readability of many best sellers is much like the edibility of junk food. Agribusiness and the food packagers sell us sweetened fat to live on, so we come to think that’s what food is. Amazon uses the BS Machine to sell us sweetened fat to live on, so we begin to think that’s what literature is.

She blames the online retailer for perpetuating a system that encourages authors to produce “sweetened fat” instead of the literature that nourishes the soul. She attacks the marketing of best seller lists (“BS lists”), and it would not be a mistake to infer that she believes these lists are comprised of an entirely different sort of “BS.” She writes:

Best Seller lists are generated by obscure processes, which I consider (perhaps wrongly) to consist largely of smoke, mirrors, hokum, and the profit motive. How truly the lists of Best Sellers reflect popularity is questionable.

If the literary world is a garden, then Amazon would be a gardener whose liberal use of fertilizer, Le Guin contends, has encouraged the growth of weeds. But her anger is misplaced. There is no gardener — and the garden is more beautiful than ever.

Spontaneous Order in the Book World

Amazon is a consequence, not the cause, of the digital revolution. More books are being published every year because it is now easier to become an author. Traditional publishers printed 316,480 new titles in 2010. That’s 100,000 more than they published in 2002, but this figure is dwarfed by the 2.7 million “nontraditional” titles that were published in 2010. The importance of publishing houses, bookstores, and critics has eroded because authors can now bypass these middlemen and sell ebooks directly to the public. All it takes is a website and some social-media savvy.

amazon quoteSome will argue that with this large increase in quantity, the weeds will start to outnumber the roses. The problem with this argument is that it misunderstands the market segmentation that is occurring. Simply put, what is a weed to one is a rose to another. Publishers need to sell a minimum number of books to recover the substantial fixed costs of printing. These financial pressures mean that even a well-written manuscript would be rejected if it were judged to appeal to too small an audience. As the cost of publishing has fallen, manuscripts that were previously rejected are now being published, and authors can now target smaller audiences. It is therefore unsurprising if readers find that most books conflict with their aesthetic preferences — they are not the intended audience.

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter will never sit on my parents’ nightstand. That is neither a tragedy nor unexpected, but to the people who love historical horror fiction, the world is a better place with that book in it. More writers can now pursue their dreams of becoming authors. The garden is growing larger and more diverse.

What Hath Marketing Wrought?

Le Guin is concerned about the influence of marketing in creating best seller lists. But even with a much larger budget than what book publishers have, Hollywood seems incapable of ensuring against $100 million bombs like Tomorrowland. Producers may broadly know what “the people” want, but that knowledge offers little guidance in ensuring a commercial success.

If you had told me a few years ago that one of the most popular book series in America, the Twilight saga, would be about a love triangle between a mopey teenage girl, a werewolf, and a centuries-old pedophile, I would have laughed in your face. Another best seller, Fifty Shades of Grey, started as Twilight fan fiction. In what smoke-filled room was it decided to sell erotica at Walmart?

Best sellers are an interesting phenomenon, because book consumption — once an intimate connection between reader and writer — has transformed into a widely shared social experience. These shared experiences create bonds between strangers. Art is a bridge that connects otherwise lonely islands of experience. When Mark Zuckerberg announced his book club, he was inviting countless strangers to join him in thinking and talking about the world.

Producing a best seller is harder than it looks. What sells or doesn’t sell — and what becomes the next breakout hit — is never the outcome of design. Writers and publishers experiment. Readers respond. Social media allows the cycle to accelerate, and sometimes the results can seem bewildering.

In this new era, more people are dedicating their lives to creating art. It is hard to find fault with either those pursuing their dreams or those paying them to do so. There are more books than we can read in a lifetime. If there is anything to regret, it is our pitifully short lives, not the literary bounty before us.

Le Guin is a brilliant novelist, but she fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the 21st-century market. The challenge now facing all readers is not to criticize the abundance of choices but to develop better filters for finding the literature that appeals to their interests. Luckily, Amazon has some recommendations you may be interested in viewing.

Stewart Dompe

Stewart Dompe is an instructor of economics at Johnson & Wales University. He has published articles in Econ Journal Watch and is a contributor to Homer Economicus: Using The Simpsons to Teach Economics.

Against Eco-pessimism: Half a Century of False Bad News by Matt Ridley

Pope Francis’s new encyclical on the environment (Laudato Sii) warns of the coming environmental catastrophe (“unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us”).  It’s the latest entry in a long literary tradition of environmental doomsday warnings.

In contrast, Matt Ridley, bestselling author of GenomeThe Agile Gene, and The Rational Optimist, who also received the 2012 Julian Simon Memorial Award from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, says this outlook has proven wrong time again. This is the full text of his acceptance speech. Video is embedded below.

It is now 32 years, nearly a third of a century, since Julian Simon nailed his theses to the door of the eco-pessimist church by publishing his famous article in Science magazine: “Resources, Population, Environment: An Oversupply of False Bad News.”

It is also 40 years since The Limits to Growth and 50 years since Silent Spring, plenty long enough to reflect on whether the world has conformed to Malthusian pessimism or Simonian optimism.

Before I go on, I want to remind you just how viciously Simon was attacked for saying that he thought the bad news was being exaggerated and the good news downplayed.

Verbally at least Simon’s treatment was every bit as rough as Martin Luther’s. Simon was called an imbecile, a moron, silly, ignorant, a flat-earther, a member of the far right, a Marxist.

“Could the editors have found someone to review Simon’s manuscript who had to take off his shoes to count to 20?” said Paul Ehrlich.

Erhlich together with John Holdren then launched a blistering critique, accusing Simon of lying about electricity prices having fallen. It turned out they were basing their criticism on a typo in a table, as Simon discovered by calling the table’s author. To which Ehrlich replied: “what scientist would phone the author of a standard source to make sure there were no typos in a series of numbers?”

Answer: one who likes to get his facts right.

Yet for all the invective, his critics have never laid a glove on Julian Simon then or later. I cannot think of a single significant fact, data point or even prediction where he was eventually proved badly wrong. There may be a few trivia that went wrong, but the big things are all right. Read that 1980 article again today and you will see what I mean.

I want to draw a few lessons from Julian Simon’s battle with the Malthusian minotaur, and from my own foolhardy decision to follow in his footsteps – and those of Bjorn Lomborg, Ron Bailey, Indur Goklany, Ian Murray, Myron Ebell and others – into the labyrinth a couple of decades later.

Consider the words of the publisher’s summary of The Limits to Growth: “Will this be the world that your grandchildren will thank you for? A world where industrial production has sunk to zero. Where population has suffered a catastrophic decline. Where the air, sea, and land are polluted beyond redemption. Where civilization is a distant memory. This is the world that the computer forecasts.”

Again and again Simon was right and his critics were wrong.

Would it not be nice if just one of those people who called him names piped up and admitted it? We optimists have won every intellectual argument and yet we have made no difference at all. My daughter’s textbooks trot out the same old Malthusian dirge as mine did.

What makes it so hard to get the message across?

I think it boils down to five adjectives: ahistorical, finite, static, vested and complacent. The eco-pessimist view ignores history, misunderstands finiteness, thinks statically, has a vested interest in doom and is complacent about innovation.

People have very short memories. They are not just ignoring, but unaware of, the poor track record of eco-pessimists. For me, the fact that each of the scares I mentioned above was taken very seriously at the time, attracting the solemn endorsement of the great and the good, should prompt real skepticism about global warming claims today.

That’s what motivated me to start asking to see the actual evidence about climate change. When I did so I could not find one piece of data – as opposed to a model – that shows either unprecedented change or change is that is anywhere close to causing real harm.

Yet when I made this point to a climate scientist recently, he promptly and cheerily said that “the fact that people have been wrong before does not make them wrong this time,” as if this somehow settled the matter for good.

Second, it is enormously hard for people to grasp Simon’s argument that “Incredible as it may seem at first, the term ‘finite’ is not only inappropriate but downright misleading in the context of natural resources.”

He went on: “Because we find new lodes, invent better production methods and discover new substitutes, the ultimate constraint upon our capacity to enjoy unlimited raw materials at acceptable prices is knowledge.” This is a profoundly counterintuitive point.

Yet was there ever a better demonstration of this truth than the shale gas revolution? Shale gas was always there; but what made it a resource, as opposed to not a resource, was knowledge – the practical know-how developed by George Mitchell in Texas. This has transformed the energy picture of the world.

Besides, as I have noted elsewhere, it’s the renewable – infinite – resources that have a habit of running out: whales, white pine forests, buffalo. It’s a startling fact, but no non-renewable resource has yet come close to exhaustion, whereas lots of renewable ones have.

And by the way, have you noticed something about fossil fuels – we are the only creatures that use them. What this means is that when you use oil, coal or gas, you are not competing with other species. When you use timber, or crops or tide, or hydro or even wind, you are.

There is absolutely no doubt that the world’s policy of encouraging the use of bio-energy, whether in the form of timber or ethanol, is bad for wildlife – it competes with wildlife for land, or wood or food.

Imagine a world in which we relied on crops and wood for all our energy and then along comes somebody and says here’s this stuff underground that we can use instead, so we don’t have to steal the biosphere’s lunch.

Imagine no more. That’s precisely what did happen in the industrial revolution.

Third, the Malthusian view is fundamentally static. Julian Simon’s view is fundamentally dynamic. Again and again when I argue with greens I find that they simply do not grasp the reflexive nature of the world, the way in which prices cause the substitution of resources or the dynamic properties of ecosystems – the word equilibrium has no place in ecology.

Take malaria. The eco-pessimists insisted until recently that malaria must get worse in a warming 21st century world. But, as Paul Reiter kept telling them to no avail, this is nonsense. Malaria disappeared from North America, Russia and Europe and retreated dramatically in South America, Asia and Africa in the twentieth century even as the world warmed.

That’s not because the world got less congenial to mosquitoes. It’s because we moved indoors and drained the swamps and used DDT and malaria medications and so on. Human beings are a moving target. They adapt.

But, my fourth point, another reason Simon’s argument fell on stony ground is that so many people had and have a vested interest in doom. Though they hate to admit it, the environmental movement and the scientific community are vigorous, healthy, competitive, cut-throat, free markets in which corporate leviathans compete for donations, grants, subsidies and publicity. The best way of getting all three is to sound the alarm. If it bleeds it leads. Good news is no news.

Imagine how much money you would get if you put out an advert saying: “we now think climate change will be mild and slow, none the less please donate”. The sums concerned are truly staggering. Greenpeace and WWF, the General Motors and Exxon of the green movement, between them raise and spend a billion dollars a year globally. WWF spends $68m alone on educational propaganda. Frankly, Julian, Bjorn, Ron, Indur, Ian, Myron and I are spitting in the wind.

Yet, fifth, ironically, a further problem is complacency. The eco-pessimists are the Panglossians these days, for it is they who think the world will be fine without developing new technologies. Let’s not adopt GM food – let’s stick with pesticides.

Was there ever a more complacent doctrine than the precautionary principle: don’t try anything new until you are sure it is safe? As if the world were perfect. It is we eco-optimists, ironically, who are acutely aware of how miserable this world still is and how much better we could make it – indeed how precariously dependent we are on still inventing ever more new technologies.

I had a good example of this recently debating a climate alarmist. He insisted that the risk from increasing carbon dioxide was acute and that therefore we needed to drastically cut our emissions by 90 percent or so. In vain did I try to point out that drastically cutting emissions by 90% might do more harm to the poor and the rain forest than anything the emissions themselves might do. That we are taking chemotherapy for a cold, putting a tourniquet round our neck to stop a nosebleed.

My old employer, the Economist, is fond of a version of Pascal’s wager – namely that however small the risk of catastrophic climate change, the impact could be so huge that almost any cost is worth bearing to avert it. I have been trying to persuade them that the very same logic applies to emissions reduction.

However small is the risk that emissions reduction will lead to planetary devastation, almost any price is worth paying to prevent that, including the tiny risk that carbon emissions will destabilize the climate. Just look at Haiti to understand that getting rid of fossil fuels is a huge environmental risk.

That’s what I mean by complacency: complacently assuming that we can decarbonize the economy without severe ecological harm, complacently assuming that we can shut down world trade without starving the poor, that we can grow organic crops for seven billion people without destroying the rain forest.

Having paid homage to Julian Simon’s ideas, let me end by disagreeing with him on one thing. At least I think I am disagreeing with him, but I may be wrong.

He made the argument, which was extraordinary and repulsive to me when I first heard it as a young and orthodox eco-pessimist, that the more people in the world, the more invention. That people were brains as well as mouths, solutions as well as problems. Or as somebody once put it: why is the birth of a baby a cause for concern, while the birth of a calf is a cause for hope?

Now there is a version of this argument that – for some peculiar reason – is very popular among academics, namely that the more people there are, the greater the chance that one of them will be a genius, a scientific or technological Messiah.

Occasionally, Julian Simon sounds like he is in this camp. And if he were here today, — and by Zeus, I wish he were – I would try to persuade him that this is not the point, that what counts is not how many people there are but how well they are communicating. I would tell him about the new evidence from Paleolithic Tasmania, from Mesolithic Europe from the Neolithic Pacific, and from the internet today, that it’s trade and exchange that breeds innovation, through the meeting and mating of ideas.

That the lonely inspired genius is a myth, promulgated by Nobel prizes and the patent system. This means that stupid people are just as important as clever ones; that the collective intelligence that gives us incredible improvements in living standards depends on people’s ideas meeting and mating, more than on how many people there are. That’s why a little country like Athens or Genoa or Holland can suddenly lead the world. That’s why mobile telephony and the internet has no inventor, not even Al Gore.

Not surprisingly, academics don’t like this argument. They just can’t get their pointy heads around the idea that ordinary people drive innovation just by exchanging and specializing. I am sure Julian Simon got it, but I feel he was still flirting with the outlier theory instead.

The great human adventure has barely begun. The greenest thing we can do is innovate. The most sustainable thing we can do is change. The only limit is knowledge. Thank you Julian Simon for these insights.

2012 Julian L. Simon Memorial Award Dinner from CEI Video on Vimeo.

Anything Peaceful

Anything Peaceful is FEE’s new online ideas marketplace, hosting original and aggregate content from across the Web.

Nevada Passes Universal School Choice by Max Borders

People are becoming more conscious about animal welfare. The livestock, they say, shouldn’t be confined to factory farms — five by five — in such horrible conditions. These beings should be given more freedom to roam and to develop in a more natural way. They’re treated as mere chattel for the assembly line. It’s inhumane to keep them like this, they say — day after day, often in deplorable conditions.

Unfortunately, only a minority extends this kind of consciousness to human children. But that minority is growing, apparently.

Nevada is changing everything. According to the NRO,

Nevada governor Brian Sandoval [recently] signed into law the nation’s first universal school-choice program. That in and of itself is groundbreaking: The state has created an option open to every single public-school student.

Even better, this option improves upon the traditional voucher model, coming in the form of an education savings account (ESA) that parents control and can use to fully customize their children’s education.

Yes, school choice has often advanced through the introduction of vouchers and charter schools — which remain some of the most important reforms for breaking up the government education monopoly.

But vouchers were, to quote researcher Matthew Ladner, “the rotary telephones of our movement — an awesome technology that did one amazing thing.” States such as Nevada (and Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee) have implemented the iPhone of choice programs. They “still do that one thing well, but they also do a lot of other things,” Ladner notes.

So what’s the deal? What do parents and kids actually get out of this?

As of next year, parents in Nevada can have 90 percent (100 percent for children with special needs and children from low-income families) of the funds that would have been spent on their child in their public school deposited into a restricted-use spending account. That amounts to between $5,100 and $5,700 annually, according to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

Those funds are deposited quarterly onto a debit card, which parents can use to pay for a variety of education-related services and products — things such as private-school tuition, online learning, special-education services and therapies, books, tutors, and dual-enrollment college courses.

It’s an à la carte education, and the menu of options will be as hearty as the supply-side response — which, as it is whenever markets replace monopolies, is likely to be robust.

This is big news. Not merely because it is the most ambitious school choice measure yet passed, but also because it represents a very real opportunity to demonstrate the power of competitive forces to unleash entrepreneurship and innovation in the service of children.

When we compare such a bold measure to the status quo, it’s pretty groundbreaking. So it’s probably not the time to quibble about the ideological purity of such a policy.

But we should seriously consider the concerns of those who advocate full privatization, as opposed to tax and voucher reform.

Here are three things to keep an eye on:

  1. Nevadans have to remain vigilant that this doesn’t become an entree for regulators and incumbent crony schools to jack up the prices and mute the very market forces that will liberate teachers and kids.
    In other words, you don’t want to see what happened to health care (and, to some extent, higher education) happen to private education, just as low-income students finally have a chance to escape government-run schools.
  2. Nevadans have to ensure that cost spirals don’t infect the system due to cross-subsidy. This is what happened to the university system.
  3. Nevadans have to capitalize on the wiggle room quickly, by fundamentally disrupting the education market in such a profound way that it wards off the specter of those who are waiting to seize it back from parents and children.
    This can have spillover effects into other states, too, due to innovation and copycat entrepreneurship. (It might also attract a lot of parents to the state.)

Such alterations to the status quo should be welcome news to those who understand that freedom is not some ideal sitting atop Mt. Utopia.

This is a weak joint and a leverage point to unleash creative, tech-propelled market forces in a space that has been dominated by politics and unions and stifling bureaucracy.

There will be battles ahead on this front. But Nevada’s change is certainly cause for cautious celebration.

Max Borders

Max Borders is the editor of the Freeman and director of content for FEE. He is also co-founder of the event experience Voice & Exit and author of Superwealth: Why we should stop worrying about the gap between rich and poor.

Microaggressions and Microwonders: Are mountains out of molehills proof the world’s getting better? by Steven Horwitz

A recurring theme of recent human history is that the less of something bad we see in the world around us, the more outrage we generate about the remaining bits.

For example, in the 19th century, outrage about child labor grew as the frequency of child labor was shrinking. Economic forces, not legislation, had raised adult wages to a level at which more and more families did not need additional income from children to survive, and children gradually withdrew from the labor force. As more families enjoyed having their children at home or in school longer, they became less tolerant of those families whose situations did not allow them that luxury, and the result was the various moral crusades, and then laws, against child labor.

We have seen the same process at work with cigarette smoking in the United States. As smoking has declined over the last generation or two, we have become ever less tolerant of those who continue to smoke. Today, that outrage continues in the form of new laws against vaping and e-cigarettes.

The ongoing debate over “rape culture” is another manifestation of this phenomenon. During the time that reasonably reliable statistics on rape in the United States have been collected, rape has never been less frequent than it is now, and it is certainly not as institutionalized as a practice in the Western world as it was in the past. Yet despite this decline — or in fact because of it — our outrage at the rape that remains has never been higher.

The talk of the problem of “microaggressions” seems to follow this same pattern. The term refers to the variety of verbal and nonverbal forms of communication that are said to constitute disrespect for particular groups, especially those who have been historically marginalized. So, for example, the use of exclusively masculine pronouns might be construed as a “microaggression” against women, or saying “ladies and gentlemen” might be seen as a microaggression against transsexuals. The way men take up more physical space on a train or bus, or the use of the phrase “walk-only zones” (which might offend the wheelchair-bound) to describe pedestrian crossways, are other examples.

Those who see themselves as the targets of microaggressions have often become very effective entrepreneurs of outrage in trying to parlay these perceived slights into indications of much more pervasive problems of sexism or racism and the like. Though each microaggression individually might not seem like much, they add up. So goes the argument.

I don’t want to totally dismiss the underlying point here, as it is certainly true that people say and do things (often unintentionally) that others will find demeaning, but I do want to note how this cultural phenomenon fits the pattern identified above. We live in a society in which the races and genders (and classes!) have never been more equal. Really profound racism and sexism is far less prominent today than it was 50 or 100 years ago. In a country where the president is a man of color and where one of our richest entertainers is a woman of color, it’s hard to argue that there hasn’t been significant progress.

But it is exactly that progress that leads to the outrage over microaggressions. Having steadily pushed back the more overt and damaging forms of inequality, and having stigmatized them as morally offensive, we have less tolerance for the smaller bits that remain. As a result, we take small behaviors that are often completely unintended as offenses and attempt to magnify them into the moral equivalent of past racism or sexism. Even the co-opting of the word “aggression” to describe what is, in almost all cases, behavior that is completely lacking in actual aggression is an attempt to magnify the moral significance of those behaviors.

Even if we admit that some of such behaviors may well reflect various forms of animus, there are two problems with the focus on microaggressions.

First, where do we draw the line? Once these sorts of behaviors are seen as slights with the moral weight of racism or sexism, we can expect to see anyone and everyone who feels slighted about anything someone else said or did declare it a “microaggression” and thereby try to capture the same moral high ground.

We are seeing this already, especially on college campuses, where even the mere discussion of controversial ideas that might make some groups uncomfortable is being declared to be a microaggression. In some cases this situation is leading faculty to stop teaching anything beyond the bland.

Second, moral equivalence arguments can easily backfire. For example, if we, as some feminists were trying to do in the 1980s, treat pornography as the equivalent of rape, hoping to make porn look worse, we might end up causing people to treat real physical rape less seriously given that they think porn is largely harmless.

So it goes with microaggressions: if we try to raise men taking up too much room on a bus seat into a serious example of sexism, then we risk people reacting by saying, “Well, if that’s what sexism is, then why should I really worry too much about sexism?” The danger is that when far more troubling examples of sexism or racism appear (for example, the incarceration rates of African-American men), we might be inclined to treat them less seriously.

It is tempting to want to flip the script on the entrepreneurs of microaggression outrages and start to celebrate their outrages as evidence of how far we’ve come. If men who take the middle armrest on airplanes (as obnoxious as that might be) are a major example of gender inequality, we have come far indeed. But as real examples of sexism and racism and the like do still exist, I’d prefer another strategy to respond to the talk of microaggressions.

Let’s spend more time celebrating the “microwonders” of the modern world. Just as microaggression talk magnifies the small pockets of inequality left and seems to forget the larger story of social progress, so does our focus on large social and economic problems in general cause us to forget the larger story of progress that is often manifested in tiny ways.

We live in the future that prior generations only imagined. We have the libraries of the world in our pockets. We have ways of easily connecting with friends and strangers across the world. We can have goods and even services of higher quality and lower cost, often tailored to our particular desires, delivered to our door with a few clicks of a button. We have medical advances that make our lives better in all kinds of small ways. We have access to a variety of food year-round that no king in history had. The Internet brings us happiness every day through the ability to watch numerous moments of humor, human triumph, and joy.

Even as we recognize that the focus on microaggressions means we have not yet eliminated every last trace of inequality, we should also recognize that it means we’ve come very far. And we should not hesitate to celebrate the microwonders of progress that often get overlooked in our laudable desire to continue to repair an imperfect world.

Steven Horwitz

Steven Horwitz is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University and the author of Microfoundations and Macroeconomics: An Austrian Perspective, now in paperback.