Why Bedbugs Are Back

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Bedbugs have returned with a vengeance. Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

It must have been pretty rotten to sleep in, say, 12th century Europe. Your floor was dirt. Your mattress was made from hay or bean husks. The biggest drag of all must have been the bedbug problem.

It's not so fabulous to lie there asleep while thousands of ghastly critters gnaw on your flesh. You wake with rashes all over your body.

They heal gradually over a few days, but, every night, it starts all over again.

No, they don't kill you. But they surely make life desperate and miserable. They know where you are. They sense the carbon dioxide. They are after your blood, so they can stay alive. No wonder some people have been driven to suicide.

It stands to reason that among the earliest priorities of civilized life was the total eradication of bedbugs. And we did it! Thanks to modern pesticides, most especially DDT, generations knew not the bedbug.

That is, at least in capitalist countries. I have a friend from Russia whose mother explained the difference between capitalism and socialism, as summed up in bedbugs. In the 1950s, capitalist countries had eliminated them. The socialist world, by contrast, faced an epidemic.

But you know what? They are back with an amazing ferocity, right here in 21st century America.

There is a new book getting rave reviews and high sales:Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World.

You can attend BedBug University, which is "an intensive four-day course that covers bedbug biology and behavior, treatment protocols and explores the unique legal challenges and business opportunities of bedbugs."

You can browse the Bedbug Registry, with dozens of reports coming in from around the country. You can call a local company that specializes in keeping them at bay.

Welcome to the post-DDT world, in which fear of pesticides displaced fear of the thing that pesticides took away. Oh, how glorious it is to embrace nature and all its ways—until nature begins to feed on you in your sleep.

The various restrictions and bans from the 1970s have gradually brought back the nightmares that wonderful, effective, killer chemicals took away. Some people claim that today not even DDT works because the new strain of bedbug is stronger than ever.

Forget innovating with new pesticides; the restrictions are just too tight. There is not a single product at your local big-box hardware store that can deal with these bloodsuckers. And the products that more or less work that are available online, such as Malathion, are not approved for indoor use—and I know for sure that everyone obeys such rules!

In our current greeny ethos, people are suggesting "natural" methods, such as "take all of your laundry and bedding to the laundromat and wash and dry it at high temperatures."

Why not do it at home? Well, thanks to federal regulations, your hot water heater is shipped with a high temperature of 110 degrees, which is something like a luxurious bath for the bedbug. Add your detergent—which, by government decree, no longer has phosphates—and your wash turns into Mr. Bubble happy time for Mr. Bedbug.

So you could stand over gigantic pots of boiling water in your kitchen, fishing beddings in and out, beating your mattresses outside with sticks and otherwise sleeping in plastic bags, as they do in the new season of Orange Is the New Black. You know, like in prison. Or like in the 12th century.

No matter how modernized we become, no matter how many smartphones and tablets we acquire, we still have to deal with the whole problem of nature trying to eat us—in particular, its most wicked part, the man-eating insect. There is no app for that.

Google around on how many people die from mosquitos and you are immediately struck by the ghastly reality: These things are even more deadly than government. And that's really saying something.

But somehow, starting in the late 1960s, we began to forget this. Capitalism achieved a wonderful thing, and we took it for granted. We banned the chemicals that saved us, and gradually came to prohibit the creation of more. We feared a "silent spring" but instead created a nation in which the noise we hear at night is of an army of bugs sinking their teeth into our flesh.

A little silence would be welcome.

So here we are: mystified, afraid to lie down and sleep, afraid to buy a sofa from Craigslist, boiling our sheets, living in fear of things we can't see. It's the Dark Ages again. It gets worse each year, especially during summer when the bedbugs leave their winter hibernation and gather en masse to become our true and living nightmare.

How bad does it have to get before we again unleash the creative forces of science and capitalism to restore a world that is livable for human beings?

Jeffrey A. Tucker is a distinguished fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education. This article first appeared on the FEE website.

Why Bedbugs Are Back | Opinion