Two Squirrels: An Essay on Economics and Fairness

(Originally posted at r2’s myspace on Oct. 8, 2007)

Today I saw a squirrel feeding from my neighbor’s bird feeder.  As I watched, a second squirrel — bored, evidently, of watching the cars from the sidewalk — approached the bird feeder as well, from below.  The first squirrel, having climed up the post, was busily gathering food from inside the feeder, while clinging on the mesh surrounding it.  The second squirrel, seeing an opportunity to gather its own food as the first dropped seeds here and there, began gathering from the ground whatever the first squirrel dropped. 

Having direct access to the source of the seed, the first squirrel was able to have what it needed to eat, as well as gather extra for the upcoming winter.  The second squirrel, though it had access to less of the seed, also took what it needed from what was available. 

Before I begin to draw parallels, allow me to shift settings, so that my intention is not misunderstood.  Suppose these same two squirrels were engaged in eating, not from a bird feeder, but from a tree.  The first squirrel, having made the climb up the tree, would have access to as much food as it needed or wanted, while the second squirrel, chosing to remain on the ground, would have access only to what the first dropped. 

Now, perhaps some of my more liberal friends may suggest that somebody ought to excert some force of will over this first squirrel and make it drop an equal amount to what it took.  After all, why should the first squirrel have more than the second?  It isn’t fair.

But wait:  wasn’t it this first squirrel that noticed the tree, or the seed?  Wasn’t it this first squirrel that undertook to gather food from this source, excerting the effort necessary to climb, and to gather?  This second squirrel wasn’t inconvenienced — indeed, had the first squirrel not acted, the second squirrel would not have had the easy access to food that it ended up having.  It may have had to find food and climb itself, or else find another proactive squirrel from whom to gather the leftovers. 

By the laws of nature itself, then, it is this first squirrel, and not the second, that is entitled to the fruits of its labor.  The second squirrel has undertaken work, to be sure.  But it is a lesser work than that of the first, and it is in fact made possible by the work of the first.

Because posting blogs doesn’t pay very well, I have a job.  My job is as a radio DJ for a small country station in Northern New York.  This job also doesn’t pay well (though it pays a great deal more than posting blogs does), but it does pay.  I work under the assumption that the people in positions above my own make more money than I do, and that the owner or owners of this particular radio station probably make a great deal more money than I do.

Some of my more liberal friends (and a great many would-be union organizers) would suggest that I ought to be somehow outraged by what may well be a vast disparity between my paycheck and my employer’s earnings.  But I’m not.

I undertook no risk in the formation of the radio station for which I work.  I did no work in its creation; did nothing to earn the startup money.  I didn’t work with the FCC in getting an operation license.  I didn’t set out and hire the company’s first employees.  I just walked in one day, many years after the station was created, and was hired to do a specific job for a specific wage.  In working out a cost-benefit for myself — what the job would entail, versus what they would pay me to do it — I decided that the job would be beneficial to myself and to my family.  The cost or the benefit to my employer didn’t, and doesn’t, figure into this analysis.  And why should it?  Upon deciding how much my time and effort are worth to me, and after stipulating that I would be compensated for such in an agreed-upon manner, to what end would I try to discern my employer’s benefits?

Instead, in performing the cost-benefit analysis, I decided that, rather than find my own tree to climb, and rather than climbing that tree, I would instead gather the benefits offered by those who did climb.  And if the cost-benefit ratio ever shifts, I can always find a new tree. 

Now, the squirrel analogy, like all analogies, is imperfect.  The reality is that the employee-employer relationship is one of symbiosis.  I get the benefits of pay, etc., offered by my employer, and in return, he gets my time and experience, which helps him make money.  Which, I should add, in turn increases his continued ability and willingness to pay me. 

I am not angry that my employer makes more money than I do; why should I be?  It was, after all, his risk, and his time and money, which made it possible for me to work and get paid to do so.  It is a mutually beneficial arrangement, from which his the greater benefit, only because his was the greater risk and investment.  To suggest that he owes me more than I agreed to work for is a breach of verbal agreement, and dishonerable. 

This is what the New Left cannot seem to grasp.  Employers risk time and money — investing in their own futures.  Often, these investments require further investments in individuals — employees — to continue to make the risk pay off.  It is the entrepreneur, and not his employee, that has the most to lose in this relationship — and therefore should have the most to gain. 

I suppose I could find my own tree.  And perhaps someday I will.  And how I choose to divide the food I find will be up to me.  Hopefully.

-Streu-

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