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Socialism and pine cones

By Dr. Michael R. Bowen
web posted May 7, 2001

Every few years, it seems, the tall pines around my house shed all their cones at once, densely carpeting the lawn to the tune of hundreds per square yard. These cones are a nuisance to rake but are excellent and picturesque for starting fires in the winter. This spring, as the snow receded and exposed a bumper crop, I decided to save my back by setting my boys to work gathering.

I overcame their reluctance by offering a price per bag of cones collected. Sitting on the front porch sipping a beer, I kept a tally for each boy. At first they worked sluggishly, but as each boy brought in a bag I added it to his tally and announced how much money he had earned. When they saw the money increase with each delivery, the action sped up considerably. After awhile, I tried to pitch in but was briskly shooed away by the young entrepreneurs. In no time the front lawn was cleared. Ah, the power of the profit motive!

Then I sprang it on them. I read the tally to the assembled boys, noting that the oldest had gathered 15 bags, the middle boy nine, and the youngest six. I announced that 30 bags were worth so many dollars, and that the pay would be distributed in equal thirds. Of course, the two higher producers protested loudly, but I pointed out that they were older and faster than their little brother, who worked just as long as they had.

Then I set them to work on the back lawn. Now, however, the old fire was gone. The smallest one became distracted by a nesting bird. The middle one wasted good earning time on rebuking his younger brother for his idleness, while the oldest one addressed the same charge to his two juniors. The flow of pine cones into the gathering barrels was noticeably decreased, although the supply of pine cones was as dense as ever. When I told the oldest he was slacking, his outraged feelings finally got the best of him. "Come on, Dad! Why should I knock myself out? Those guys are going to get paid for half of my work anyway." The middle son said the same with respect to his little brother, and the youngest, no fool, kept quiet and watched the bird.

I then confessed that it had been a game, and that actually I intended all along to pay each strictly on the basis of the amount he had gathered. We compared the production of the front lawn to the back lawn, noting that the same amount of time had been spent by the same number of workers, yet the back had yielded less than half what front had. This, I told them, is what socialism does. It takes from those who work and produce, and gives to those who do not. In no time, the hardest workers become discouraged, while the lowest producers are assured that they do not have to struggle. Production falls, and everyone receives less.

The tallies were reviewed, and each boy fled for the candy store with a pocketful of money he had earned by his own hard work. There remain plenty of leaves to be raked, but I'll save them for tomorrow's lesson.

This is Dr. Michael R. Bowen's first contribution to Enter Stage Right.

Other related articles: (open in a new window)

  • I, Pencil by Leonard Read (October 1997)
    Leonard Read uses the construction of the simple pencil to show the beauty of a free economy




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