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Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Snow Plowers’ Petition

Look for the unseen.

The following might have happened in a small college town in upstate New York…

In a cold and snowy land there lived the people of the North Country.  Some of them made a living by plowing and disposing of the snow that seemed to fall endlessly from the skies between November and March.  Though the work was hard, and often took place in the dark hours of the early morning, they frequently prospered, since the snowfalls came each year and the people of the North Country needed their driveways and parking lots free of the beautiful white flakes.  The Snow Plowers were happy.

But in the winter of 2011-12 the snows seemed to stop.  Oh there was a little ice and some snow, but not really enough to plow: Warmer temperatures quickly melted the little that fell.  The Snow Plowers were not happy.  They gathered the people of the town and complained that the lack of snowfall was devastating the economy of the North Country.  Without the income they earned from plowing, they told their fellow citizens, they would have no money to spend at the local grocery store or bars or restaurants.  And their fellow citizens who owned those fine establishments (and worked there too) would see their income fall, leading quickly to an economic disaster.

Saving the Economy

At first the people of the town nodded along in agreement.  “Yes,” they said, “we must save our economy. But how?”  The Snow Plowers suggested a petition to the Clouds, begging them to bring the snow that would save their business and, through the Magic Multiplier, save their town’s economy.  And so a petition was created.

But then a wise old man stepped forward and declared this was foolishness.  When asked by the townspeople to explain, here is what he said:

It is true that the lack of snow hurts our friends the Snow Plowers, and that is truly unfortunate.  However, just because they have lost income and therefore cannot spend it in the town and beyond, that does not mean the town as a whole is suffering.  Consider your own situation.  Most winters you spend perhaps $300 to pay the Snow Plowers to clear your driveways.  This winter you have spent but $50.  What has happened to that other $250?  You have presumably spent it (or perhaps put it in the bank to be lent to others who have spent it).  And where did you spend it?  On the exact same things the Snow Plowers would have spent it on.  You have been able to eat out a few more times, buy some extra beers, or a nicer steak at the grocery store, or even some candles.  The economy hasn’t been harmed; the flow of spending has just been altered.  You must, in the words of a wise man, “see the unseen.”  And what is unseen is what you have done instead of pay the Snow Plowers.

The Difference It Makes

One young man raised his hand and asked, “If this is true, then what you are saying is that it doesn’t make a difference whether it snows or not to our local economy.  So why should we not ask for more snow and help out our friends the Snow Plowers?”

The wise man responded:

Ah, but it does make a difference.  The rest of us are better off when it doesn’t snow.  Think of it this way: Each time it snows we must spend $25 to get the thing back we value: a usable driveway.  So in snowy winters we give up $300 and have a clean driveway — and that is all.

This winter, by contrast, we have both the clean driveway and the $300.  And we are free to spend that $300 on other things we might want, such as a new flat-screen TV.  This winter we are able to have both a new TV and a clean driveway, while in past years we’ve  had only the clean driveway.  Are we not all better off as a result?   It is unfortunate that our Snow Plower friends are worse off, but would we really prefer a world where we spend $300 to get us right back where we were before the snow?

The people pondered his wisdom, and they understood.  Some of them suggested that if their Snow Plower friends were truly suffering, the rest might use some of the money they saved by not plowing to help them through winter, perhaps by asking them to do some other sort of much-needed work around their homes or around the town.  After all, painting a room or installing new thermal windows would make them better off in a way that unnecessary snow plowing would not.

So the Snow Plowers’ petition to the Clouds was ripped up, and the people of the town rejoiced in the windfall created by the absence of snowfall.

(Thanks to Sarah Skwire for some stylistic suggestions.)

  • Steven Horwitz was the Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise in the Department of Economics at Ball State University, where he was also Director of the Institute for the Study of Political Economy. He is the author of Austrian Economics: An Introduction.