Mises Daily Articles
Ireland's Dirt Economy
No, I'm not talking about Ireland's current economic troubles. I mean dirt dirt. Yes, that's right, soil — from the ground — in Ireland. You can totally buy it for like $15. Just walk into any Irish-gift store, or you can just order online from the actual company that distributes it. Irish dirt is an actual product that people can and do buy. For anyone cursed with the anticapitalistic mentality, this will really make them fall out of their chair.
I can hear them now, "Wow, I knew Irishmen were stupid, but this really takes the prize and runs with it. Don't they know they're buying snake oil, that they're being ripped off? It's dirt, for crying out loud!"
One would have thought that type of 19th-century, sideshow-capitalist swindler had died off in the Progressive Era with the introduction of government regulation ensuring the quality of products sold on the market. It's just another example, nay, proof that people are simply too stupid to know what's best for them, and that we need more government regulation to ensure the dumb masses will not be taken advantage of by the next smooth-talking robber baron.
Even free marketers simply might not "get it" when it comes to selling dirt. They understand the subjective value of goods, but dirt? What they don't understand is that it's not just dirt, or even just Irish dirt, but that there is a deep cultural and historical significance behind it. Dirt has been a commodity and a large portion of the economy in Ireland for centuries. Survival often depended on it, and I'm not talking about farming.
In the bogs of central Ireland, there is a layer of soil called peat, which is comprised of roots, decaying plants, and other organic material that holds the soil together. This build up over thousands of years, and extends down for several meters. It is not ideal for farming, but can be cut out in large sections and left to dry in sun. These "sods of turf" prove to be a very efficient fuel for burning, and they are used even to this day to provide heat and electricity to Irish homes.
Harvesting of peat by hand is still done, but only on some small, privately owned bogs. Most peat harvesting today is a large-scale industrial process. When the Great Famine forced millions of Irish to emigrate to the United States, many brought with them a sod of turf, a reminder of the old country and their former way of life.
So it turns out that Irish dirt does poses an actual utility, a utility beyond what one would normally expect from dirt. Over the centuries, it has been harvested, refined, packaged, and sold to wholesale merchants. These wholesalers then break those large packages into smaller ones and resell them to retailers. At retail, it can then be purchased by the consumer, usually in the form of a briquet as fuel for the fireplace.
Its price has been subject to the laws of supply and demand, and its rate of consumption governed and moderated by time preference and the law of marginal utility. It is as "legitimate" a commodity as any other good, and any Irishman with a basic knowledge of his family history would understand why his great-grandfather would have such a deep, sentimental attachment to a small sod of turf he brought with him to the United States.
The demand for Irish dirt in the United States is an altogether different market from the one that exists in Ireland. It is not desired for its utility, but the significance attached to its history on the Emerald Isle. It can be used to mark a special occasion, such as a funeral, wedding, christening, or a move to a new home. Some merely want it for the inherent awesomeness in growing shamrocks in actual Irish dirt. Perhaps you have always wanted to go to Ireland, but couldn't afford it. The free market, literally, brings Ireland to you.
It is because of this unique Irish-American market that the Official Irish Dirt sold by the Auld Sod exporting company is made to meet certain market requirements. It is not made to heat your home, but is actually useful in growing things.
A patented method of production is used to ensure, not only that it has the desired texture and smell, but that the dirt is actually not dirty (see this video, at about the second minute). You can run it through your fingers and wipe it off without small particles adhering to your skin — no need for soap or water. What a miracle of the free market! It sounds almost utopian that the forces of capitalism could increase living standards to such a degree that dirt is no longer dirty.
For those still concerned for the welfare of ignorant consumers, it should please you to know that Irish dirt is, in fact, highly regulated by both the Irish and American governments. Peat production in Ireland was socialized back in 1946, and most of the land suitable for peat harvesting is owned by the government and managed by the state-owned corporation Bord na Móna. If you wish to export Irish dirt to the United States, it must be approved by both the Irish and US Department of Agriculture.
As dumb as it sounds, our government actually feels the need to protect us from dirt. It makes one truly thankful to know how much our government does for us when it protects us from things like mad cow, swine flu, DDT, cold medicine, and pomegranate fruit drink.
C'est la vie. Despite these hindrances, the market finds a way. Everyone wants to be Irish, at least for a day. Now, thanks to the miracle of commerce, you can not only call yourself Irish but even have a piece of Ireland to call your own.