Pet Rock: Birth of Modernity

The year was 1975, and times were seriously changing. The protests against the Vietnam War ended an egregious slaughter. A president resigned to avoid impeachment. The postwar economic policies of the ruling class had proven unworkable. The illusion that the state could plan and save the world began its precipitous freefall. And modern consumer culture was born with the most preposterous possible product: a rock in a box.

It sold millions. It enraptured the masses with its sheer implausibility, and people delighted in every bit of it, without even knowing why. They didn’t need to know why.

Gary Dahl, the inventor of the Pet Rock, has died at the age of 78, and he has some regrets about his product and its cultural impact. He shouldn’t have regretted a thing. He taught us economics. He taught us about the marketplace. He demonstrated the lie that elites can outwit consumers on the march. With one brilliant stroke, he showed that economic activity is inseparable from the silliness and play that is part of the human spirit. His product showed us the way to universal human empowerment. It gave birth to modernity as we know it.

Dahl taught us that value is subjective, an extension of the human mind and nothing else. There is no necessary relationship between cost and price. Innovations that please people are unexpected. What strikes some as irrational to others is perfectly rational. The reasons people buy are too complex to be put in a formula. Wealth creation defies every prediction. Intellectuals can never outsmart the market. These are the lessons of the mighty, beautiful, transforming, and forever challenging pet rock.

It was a rock that refuted a century of intellectual error. Every system of social organization until that time had made the same mistake. They all presumed knowledge of the world that humankind cannot possess. Every system — whether socialist, social democratic, Keynesian, or fascist — presumed that society cannot manage itself without the assistance and guiding hand of authority. They postulated that an empowered elite, if given enough resources and backed by the highest possible intelligence, could know what is best for us, overriding our preferences and dreams and imposing something different from the top down.

Then came the rock. The idea originally came to Dahl while having a drink with friends. Pets are so much trouble, require so much care. The best pet would be a rock, said Dahl. His next thought: this idea could have legs.

Sure enough, it was a consumer phenom. Every store had to carry it. They flew off the shelves. Cashiers stood in awe as people shelled out $4 to have their dream. People of all ages happily made the exchange. Stores couldn’t keep it in stock.

What was going on? It was a revolt, expressed in the only way that people could express that desire to be free from the ruling class and their expectations. Despite a century of abuse, people still had the right to spend money on legal product. Producers still had a right to sell them.

And so America rose up in defiance and said: I will buy this rock. I will love this rock. I will care for this rock. I will participate in making the entrepreneur behind this rock a rich man. I will do my part to teach a lesson to humanity: we cannot be controlled, we cannot be caged, we cannot be made to comply with priorities other than our own.

And so they bought the stupidest possible product ever put on a shelf. The lesson had to be emblazoned on the cultural landscape. It could have been anything else, but consumers chose the one thing that made the least sense, the one good that shredded the plans of the elites and defied the demands of intelligentsia from coast to coast. It had to be a rock, a product with a use value that, by any objective standard, was exactly zero. In the end, who or what defines what constitutes use value? The American consumer made the statement. It is our minds and nothing else.

Think of this exercise as an extension of the draft riots but in different form. With conscription, the state dared to override our ownership of our own bodies, saying that instead of seeking to live a good life, we should instead be forced to kill and be killed in a foreign war. We burned our draft cards. We moved to Canada. We defected from the ranks of the enlisted. We reclaimed our freedom.

And a few years later, it was the same with the Pet Rock. Since the turn of the twentieth century, the state had been telling us what to do with our own property and our own money. They controlled prices. They made cartels. They subsidized some industries and banned others. They created entire central plans based on their views of what constituted a national priority.

Then came the rock. It was absurd. It should never have been a product that anyone would pay for. But just as we defied the draft, we defied their economic plans. We squandered our precious and scarce resources on rocks in boxes, and why? For a simple reason: it is what we wanted to do. No explaining. No rationale. No justification. We were merely exercising that precious freedom to do with our money what we wanted to do.

And America delighted as its best and brightest scoffed in disgust. But there was no stopping it. Money was being made by everyone involved. And the people held up their rocks and looked at them with pride, showed them off to friends and neighbors, and enjoyed every minute as the cultural snobs and the codified protectors of the national interests recoiled in horror. That made it all the better.

It was the birth of consumer culture as an act of political defiance. And today, we do it every single day, as we listen to unapproved music, inhale unapproved plants, click on links without permission, and download mobile applications that were never submitted to a central committee to approve their social merit. It was a rock, an inauspicious artifact of nature, a valueless thing to which we gave value, that began it all.

Gary Dahl, rest in peace, and rest in the happiness knowing that you did your part to liberate humanity. Thou art Dahl, and upon your rock we will build a world of peace and prosperity.

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Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker is Founder and President of the Brownstone Institute. He is also Senior Economics Columnist for Epoch Times, author of 10 books, including Liberty or Lockdown, and thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press. He speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture.

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28 comments

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  • This article is sensational. Rocked my world. I’ll never take the Pet Rock for granite again. Seriously though, this piece is a stone’s throw from perfection. Thank you!

  • I really hope this article isn’t an April Fool’s Joke because it’s too brilliant!
    “Economic activity is inseparable from the silliness and play that is part of the human spirit.”

    • April fool’s joke? Are you unfamiliar with the Pet Rock? It was a real thing, back in the day. Huge. Everybody had one! It was a lot of fun, and a few people made a whole lot of money. Hope they parlayed it!

  • I really hope this article isn’t an April Fool’s Joke because it’s too brilliant!
    “Economic activity is inseparable from the silliness and play that is part of the human spirit.”

  • I really hope this article isn’t an April Fool’s Joke because it’s too brilliant!
    “Economic activity is inseparable from the silliness and play that is part of the human spirit.”

  • I have a USB powered powered one that has lived up to all my expectations.
    (Yes, it really is a thing.)

  • I have a USB powered powered one that has lived up to all my expectations.
    (Yes, it really is a thing.)

  • @mikereid No. Doesn’t do much of anything but what you would expect of a rock. USB power is handy on my desk as I can just plug it in to my computer and not worry about changing batteries or using more plugs on my power strip.

  • Bless you, Jeffrey, for your knack at always seeing the positive truths behind trends and occurrences that would otherwise go unnoticed. It is easy (for me, at least) to fall into despair concerning the condition of the world. You remind me to focus on the solid (as a rock) power of entrepreneurship and the positive currents that flow through the marketplace. Perhaps that is the spirit that lies behind liberty.me, as well. Thanks.

  • Bless you, Jeffrey, for your knack at always seeing the positive truths behind trends and occurrences that would otherwise go unnoticed. It is easy (for me, at least) to fall into despair concerning the condition of the world. You remind me to focus on the solid (as a rock) power of entrepreneurship and the positive currents that flow through the marketplace. Perhaps that is the spirit that lies behind liberty.me, as well. Thanks.

  • Bless you, Jeffrey, for your knack at always seeing the positive truths behind trends and occurrences that would otherwise go unnoticed. It is easy (for me, at least) to fall into despair concerning the condition of the world. You remind me to focus on the solid (as a rock) power of entrepreneurship and the positive currents that flow through the marketplace. Perhaps that is the spirit that lies behind liberty.me, as well. Thanks.

  • Bless you, Jeffrey, for your knack at always seeing the positive truths behind trends and occurrences that would otherwise go unnoticed. It is easy (for me, at least) to fall into despair concerning the condition of the world. You remind me to focus on the solid (as a rock) power of entrepreneurship and the positive currents that flow through the marketplace. Perhaps that is the spirit that lies behind liberty.me, as well. Thanks.

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