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Exchanging and Relieving Burdens

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I recently mounted a flat-screen television onto a wall in my condominium.  Well, technically speaking, I didn’t personally affix the t.v. to the wall.  Instead, I paid a handyman – his name is Ernesto – to perform the actual task of affixing the t.v. to the wall.

Especially because I come from a long line of excellent amateur carpenters and handymen (who taught me much along these lines during my boyhood), I certainly could have performed this task personally.  But I estimated that the time and aggravation that I would spend to personally affix the t.v. to the wall would have been greater than the amount of time and aggravation that I could spend to earn enough income to pay Ernesto to perform this task for me.  Sure enough, I did some economics teaching and writing – tasks at which I have a comparative advantage [2] – and got paid for my outputs.  I offered, in the form of money, some of the proceeds of my work efforts to Ernesto in exchange for his promise to affix the t.v. to my wall.  Ernesto accepted my offer.  Exerting a fair amount of personal effort, along with spending about an hour of his time, Ernesto did a splendid job affixing my t.v. to my wall.

I should add that, as genuinely nice a guy as Ernesto unquestionably is, I’m certain that, had I asked him to perform this task for me in exchange for nothing more than me saying “gracias” he would have politely declined.  You see, spending his time and effort affixing t.v.s to walls is indeed burdensome.  And Ernesto understandably is unwilling to bear this burden for my benefit.  I must bear this burden if I want Ernesto to hang the t.v. on my wall.  By my paying Ernesto a sum sufficient, by his reckoning, to make it worthwhile for him to spend his time and effort at the task of hanging the t.v. on my wall, I have effectively borne the burden of hanging the t.v. on my wall.

Put differently, by my paying Ernesto, the time and effort that Ernesto spent to hang the t.v. on my wall was more than offset for him by his decreased need to personally spend his own time and effort on tasks such as growing his own food and cobbling together his own shoes: he uses the money that I paid to him to purchase these items from other people – from people who spend their time and effort producing food and shoes (and socks and medical care and smartphones and gasoline and on and on and on) for Ernesto’s consumption.  Had I (and his other customers) not paid him for his time and effort for his work as a handyman, he would have had to spend what he judged to be even more time and effort at growing food, producing clothes, manufacturing devices that enhance his abilities to communicate across long distances, concocting fuels, etc., etc., etc.

By being part of a market economy in which each person specializes in that task for which he or she enjoys a comparative advantage, and then voluntarily trading the fruits of his or her outputs for the countless fruits of hundreds of millions of other people who are also specialized as producers, each of us exchanges burdens with each other.  In the process, we greatly lighten each other’s burdens.  It’s less of a burden for me to teach economics and to then exchange the fruits of that chore with handymen (and others) to perform tasks for me than it is for me to perform for myself all of the tasks that must be performed for me to enjoy my current standard of living.  Ditto for Ernesto.  It is easier for him – a lighter burden for him – to perform handyman tasks and then exchange the fruits of his labors for the many things he buys.

It’s perfectly acceptable in this example to talk of Ernesto bearing the burden of affixing my t.v. to my wall; physically, he – not me – is the person who bears that burden.  But such talk is acceptable only if it does not imply or suggest that Ernesto is making a sacrifice for me – only if it does not imply or suggest that I am getting something from Ernesto that I do not pay for – only if such talk neither implies nor suggests that I am, or ought to feel, indebted to Ernesto – only if such talk neither implies nor suggests that Ernesto is some great and noble benefactor of mine who sacrificed for my benefit – only if such talk neither implies nor suggests that Ernesto was “burdened” (in the sense of his bearing an unrelieved cost) by this exchange that led him voluntarily to mount the t.v. on my wall – only if such talk does not imply or suggest that the person who paid, or who ultimately bore the cost, to have the t.v. mounted to the wall is Ernesto rather than me.

Such talk is acceptable only if it does not imply or suggest a double-counting of burdens.  If Ernesto is said to have borne a burden for me, then it must also be said that I bore a burden for Ernesto – one that is judged by Ernesto to be heavier for him than is the one he bore for me.  Our mutual exchange of burdens cancels each other.  But if you say that Ernesto bore the burden of hanging my t.v. without your also recognizing that I, by paying Ernesto, relieved him of another, even greater burden (say, of growing his own food), then you double-count burdens: you recognize the burden that Ernesto physically, personally endured (hanging my t.v.) while being blind to Ernesto’s release from other, heavier burdens that my payment to him allows him to enjoy.

The language we routinely use in modern society handles this issue well.  In common language we identify the payers as, well, the payers – as those who bear the burden of the production of some good or service.  The burden of paying for the resources and human effort that it took to build the car that I drive is mine, despite the fact that I personally performed none of those tasks directly.  I paid for my car.  And I am indebted to none of the workers or other input suppliers who actually manufactured it.  No one says that the burden of supplying me with car was borne by the workers in an auto factory.  Ditto for every other good or service save some – such as military work – that are supplied by the state.

I reject this unjustifiable double-standard.  However valuable military work might be, it is hardly special in this regard.  Lots of work is important, valuable, honorable, and, indeed, indispensable: doctoring, farming, house-constructing, on and on and on.  And, further, lots of work is also very dangerous: commercial fishing, fire-fighting, roofing, mining.  Although the state has an obvious self-interest in having people regard its outputs as being somehow uniquely important and indispensable, they are not.  These outputs (and the direct efforts that generate them) are, to the extent that they are genuinely useful and valuable, simply some among hundreds of millions – perhaps billions – of different outputs (and direct efforts) each of which is important to making our lives prosperous and civilized.