Why face masks are like lead pencils

Remember Milton Friedman’s argument about the humble pencil, which he used to illustrate the principle of free markets? Not a single person in the world is capable of making a lead pencil, according to Friedman. Why? Because if you list all its components and trace back their origins and manufacturing process, you’ll see that making a pencil involves cooperation between thousands of different people in dozens of different countries who have never met each other. I strongly suspect that Friedman’s argument also applies to surgical masks. Here’s what you often hear these days: “Let’s just make our own masks, so we’re no longer dependent on other countries!” But that’s not as simple as it seems. First you need all the components (fabrics, ear loops, nose strips, packaging) plus the machines for assembling and the equipment for sterilizing. Even disposable surgical masks turn out to be pretty complicated, and the production process has an important bottleneck: a delicate material called “melt-blown fabric” (I just learned). And for making that, you need a big, fancy, expensive machine (which, needless to say, has a gazillion components too). So you’re still dependent on international trade networks. Or are you gonna produce all those components too, and their components, all the way down to the raw materials? It’s an infinite regress.

To make a long story short, I don’t think the dramatic shortage of masks shows that globalized free trade has failed us and that each country should be able to produce their own masks from scratch. What it does show is that we should’ve had strategic stockpiles. If we had those, we wouldn’t have had to scramble to make masks ourselves now. It’s like frantically trying to make your own pencil from scratch, because all of a sudden you REALLY need one.