Hans Riegel Sr. invented gummy bears in 1922 as a small treat that was relatively cheap so that even poor families or children could enjoy them. This was in Germany, a country that was recently the loser of World War I and the victim of a vindictive peace conference in Paris. During what is known as the “roaring twenties” in America, Germany underwent insane inflation as the German government spit out cash to pay war reparations. You’ve heard stories of German Marks being used as wallpaper and hauled around in wheelbarrows to buy single loaves of bread- one US dollar was worth 4 trillion marks at the peak of the inflation in 1923. But all the while, gummy bears, or Gummibärchen, remained (relatively) cheap, affordable for a country that was imploding on itself.
Likewise, although in an opposite economic state, when Henry Ford used his assembly line to begin production of the Model T, he made it cheap enough so that every household could purchase an automobile. This allowed the car to descend from the pedestal of a “luxury item” and enter the world of common use. In fact, one could create a fairly comprehensive definition of progress by looking at luxuries that became commonplace. Airplanes, sugar, running water, purple cloth, more recently computers and cell phones; all these things were once inefficient and expensive, but as they became more reliable and useful they also decreased in price.
One of my favorite examples, and probably one of the most extreme, is the Polio vaccine. When Jonas Salk refused to patent his vaccine, he potentially forfeited a lot of money. (Whether or not a patent would have been granted is beside the point- Salk believed his research should go towards the edification of humanity.) In doing so, he separated money and progress into separate categories, prioritizing the many lives his vaccine saved and helped above the immense wealth he would have gained. Just as the simple pleasure of a gummy bear was kept affordable for those struggling through hard times, Salk’s vaccine was kept available to save lives without the financial burden of paying for a patented prevention. Would you see the same thing today?
Most of us have heard of or played a game called Plague Inc. (or something similar), in which you design and release a super germ onto the world in hopes of killing everyone. In the game, the world eventually bands together to produce a cure for your disease, and once it is completed it is quickly distributed to everyone. Would that happen in real life? Or would the various countries of the world bicker and fight throughout both the production and distribution of the antidote, limiting or even negating its effectiveness? Would Americans trust an antidote invented by someone from North Korea? Would parents trust scientists enough to vaccinate their babies? Perhaps even the dark scenario presented by such a videogame is optimistic.
It doesn’t just have to be disease, either. It could be any number of things, some of which we actually face today. Climate change, nuclear weapons and waste, and cancer all spring to mind. These are global issues that will take a global effort to resolve. But maybe it all starts with one or two people, choosing to sell gummy bears for a little less than they could.
There’s a place to make money, a place for inventions to allow their inventors to enjoy the benefits of their great idea. That’s capitalism. But there is also a responsibility on each of us to contribute to the concept of progress in whatever way we are able, be it large or small. Everyone, from Fortune 500 to “fortunate to have $500,” has this responsibility. It’s part of being human.