One of my friends finds the idea of things having prices to be downright offensive. College, for example should be free, because you can’t put a price on something that has such a powerful effect on one’s life. Many of my friends believe the healthcare should be completely free because you can’t put a value on human life. To even attempt to do so is morally wrong. But lets unpack this concept.
To say that all life has infinite value is the same thing as saying it has no value. In the realm of the non-embodied, there may (I wouldn’t know) be no need to pick and choose between one thing or another, or how one spends one’s time (whatever that might mean in such a context). But we live on Earth. If all things are equally valuable, how can we decide how to designate the limited amount of time and energy we have to use? If both Mary and Eva want to spend time with us, how do we decide? One might say “Both!” But it is a fact that spending a bunch of time with Mary and Eva together is not equivalent to spending less time with each of them individually. A judgment must be made. We are limited by our physicality.
Placing a value on the people in our lives, the things on which we spend our time, and the objects we collect, is how we are able make decisions and function in our embodied world. What would you do for someone you love? Would you work hard to see that they had everything they needed or even wanted? How about someone you like? Would you work just as hard for them? Would you be willing to do the same things that you do for someone you love? Or would you expect that they might take care of some, or most, things themselves? How about someone you’ve never met? Would you work hard to see that they had everything they needed or even wanted? Probably not. Not necessarily from a lack of care, but because our time is limited. We may desire to save everyone, but we don’t have the time for that. And if we did have that infinite time, is it possible that after many years of taking care of a whole bunch of people we don’t know personally, that we might eventually think that these people could do some things for themselves? Only gods don’t suffer burnout, and even they expect us to work.
Placing different values on the people in our lives acknowledges that we have limitations. It also gives a gift to those we love best. If the members of our immediate family are valued no more than the people in the wider community, then they never get to feel special, or cherished for their unique qualities.
One might argue that “value” is not the same as “price,” and yet they serve the same purpose. Price is simply a more precise and refined expression of value. Perhaps we don’t like the idea of putting a price on the time we spend with people because it reveals the ugly realities of what we value. Or perhaps we simply want to get something without having to work for it, another ugly reality.
And there is another possibility. If you think the game is rigged so that work will not get you what you think you deserve for it, prices start to look unfair, and like something that can – and should – be changed to balance the books. But this is a mistake. Of the choice between changing pricing and correcting the rigged game, the latter is the only choice that has a chance of working, even though it appears to be impossible, and price fixing is relatively easy by comparison.
Prices serve a critical purpose in our communities. They signal value. If something is expensive, that tells us that there is a need that must be fulfilled. Plumbers get well paid because we value our flush toilets and showers, and the cleanliness they bring to our households. Chances are, we value these things over long-term savings. People who stuff money in cans (or banks) instead of fixing their plumbing are viewed as mentally ill. Without prices, people might not have an incentive to do what amounts to a wet and messy job. Need I discuss a world where no one wants to be a plumber?
And how about a world where there are few doctors? Great Britain had that problem in the 70s. the British Health Service does not pay doctors well at all, and their services are free to everyone. The BHS ended up with a critical shortage of doctors, and had to recruit from other countries that were poorer than Britain, and that did not have British medical training. Why take a job where the burnout rate is high and the pay is low? Prices signal value, and British doctors were not being valued for the hard work of medical school, or the level of care they provided their patients.
Changing the prices of anything from a central location – be it labor, commodities, or time – sends a message rippling through the community, and because we are limited beings, raising or lowering one price means that the whole web is affected. Like a tensegrity structure, moving one part moves all others. And if the feedback mechanism of price is not respected, eventually the structure will collapse or explode.
Prices don’t respond to central planning the way we expect because central planning doesn’t work. Prices are too complex for any one person, or even a group of people to understand. As complex as Nature herself, prices draw a map of what we value as individuals and as communities. No one person or group of people can map such complexities, and they have no moral right to try.