Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Television Ration

In my previous post on my Dad, I mentioned my parents' television rationing scheme. Each of us children was given a ration of an hour a week where we could choose the programming on the television. Our parents limited their own viewing in the main to documentaries on PBS and Wall $treet Week with Louis Rukeyser.

I spent the next day at work thinking about the various effects this policy had on my life -- beyond the 20 point improvement in my IQ that I credit to having my TV viewing time severely limited.

It taught us that resources are limited and the wisdom of planning. Every Sunday, we'd all pore over the TV listings, planning where we'd spend our allotted time on the TV. We would carefully weigh the merits of all the shows we wanted to watch, and which was the very best on which to spend our time. It also taught us that most of popular telly is crap.

It taught co-operation and risk-taking. Most movies are broadcast over two hours, so in order to see an entire movie, we had to either obtain the co-operation of one of our siblings beforehand, or watch the first hour and hope that one of them (or one of our parents!) would be sufficiently engrossed to watch the rest.

And finally, it taught us that the recipient of a positive externality does not owe anything to the person who provides it. If my brother the Geek happened to choose in advance a program I was seriously considering choosing, that freed me to choose something else, without any concern over whether he'd like it or not.

This is a lesson that also applies to the rest of life, and far too few people seem to grasp this. As an example, suppose you live in a neighborhood with a neglected home that is such an eyesore that it has depressed the value of your own home, and those of your neighbors. I move into the eyesore, kill the rats, mow the lawn, fix the windows, scrub off all the graffitti, install fiber-cement siding, plant a garden, repair the sidewalk, and pour a new concrete driveway, making the former eyesore into a model home. The value of your home, and the others in the neighborhood, increase, along with the equity position of each of the homeowners. In short, you have benefited from my action. You will get more money from them if you choose to sell or obtain a second mortgage/ home equity loan. And you don't owe me a cent!

The same goes when the situation is reversed, however. If I were to sell that home to an avant garde artiste who painted it blaze orange and fuchsia and nailed assorted bits of trash to it and the trees I'd grown there, it could very well decrease the value of your home, perhaps even leaving you owing more on your mortgage than you could get from its sale. But just as you didn't owe me anything for making your home more valuable, neither does the artist owe you anything because its value has dropped.

The most splendid example I have seen of how to morally handle positive externalities, also known as the "free rider" question (i.e., 'how do we make free riders pay?), was from L. Neil Smith's libertarian novel, Pallas. The terraformed world of Pallas is populated by a libertarian society, that tolerates no coercion of anyone, particuarly gun control and taxes. But it suffers an orbital change, resulting in an ice age. There is a technological means to survive, but it is hugely expensive. The villain of the book promptly demands that an armed band be formed to demand "fair shares" of the needed money from others. The hero, who has become filthy rich from a couple of very GOOD inventions counters, essentially, "Don't bother. I'll pay for it all. Why shouldn't I? What good is all the money to me when I'm dead? And how is it any skin off my nose if, by saving my own life, everyone else lives too?"

If you do yourself some good, be glad! If that means you do somebody else some good, be glad! If the good you do yourself is good enough by itself to get you to do it, how on earth does it hurt you if that helps somebody else get ahead? The idea that just because somebody else gets ahead means you must have been put behind is silly at best, counter-productive or even evil at worst. Besides, if the other has any sense, he'll be grateful and kindly disposed to you for the incidental good you did him.

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