What Lawnmowers Can Teach Us

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The greatest single life-enhancing step you can take in early summer is to change your lawnmower blade. It’s a thing that gets ever duller with use, and you adjust and adjust to the diminished cutting ability with each mow, until the point that you think it is normal that it takes all your strength to shove the thing across the yard and leave a trail of clippings and unevenly cut grass in your wake.

You can do something about this, and it doesn’t involve sharpening with a whetstone. A new blade costs ten bucks or so. In a few minutes, you will find yourself gliding across the lawn as if on rollerblades.

Maybe you think that your mower is an old, off brand and it’s not likely that the hardware store will have it. Not so. There is one right there on the shelf that fits perfectly, as you will see. The length will be right, the holes for the screws will be in the right place, and it will have the right groove things that make it settle in there like it was meant to be.

The existence of replacement parts of this sort is nothing to take for granted. Note that the replacement part is probably not made by the same company that made your mower, which might be very old, even by a defunct company. An amazing market standardization has taken place, and how? To me, it is not intuitively obvious why this sort of standardization would happen.

Imagine that you are the king and in charge of economic planning. It occurs to you that people need new lawnmower blades, lest summers in your kingdom be a relentless source of frustration for all the people. Perhaps the first thought is that we need some sort of regulation that will impose a sort of uniformity so that new blades will fit old mowers and that blades will be compatible across brand names.

In any case, this is how someone who has no faith in the market might think. But look at the market in fact: the best possible standardization has occurred in a way that provides the highest benefit to the broadest swath of consumers. And it happens without a single edict or vote, and without any commission meetings or bureaucratic investigations. It turns out to be in everyone’s interest, and so it is done.

The problem of replacement parts is a huge part of the engineering process for any good you buy. This is because capitalist production considers the long-term value of a good, and how it will be used in real life. This is not the norm under socialism. In the experience of the Soviet Union, fantastic amounts of machines of all sorts stood idle, year after year, because the users couldn’t find replacement parts, which weren’t typically part of the central plan, or, if they were, they were the parts you didn’t need. When anything broke, it stayed that way or was replaced with an entirely new machine that broke in the same way, and so on. This problem tended to play havoc with the production data. It means nothing for 50,000 farm tractors to be produced in a factory for each of three straights years if one-third of them are useless at any given time.

That’s not to say that all capitalist production encourages fixing things rather than replacing them. When I was younger, it was common to fix everything: clocks, irons, radios, stereos, televisions (I vaguely remember tubes). Now of course you have guarantees that guarantee replacement, and, if the guarantee is out, you just toss it in the trash. My mother had the iron she received at her wedding shower for 20 years. Now we think nothing of tossing them out and getting a new one for $6 at Wal-Mart.

So whether something should be replaced or fixed isn’t something you can know a priori. This is an economics question that is entirely dependent on economic conditions that are known only in the real-world experience of the market economy. We might, for example, someday advance to the point that farm equipment should be tossed out rather than fixed — just as with microwaves, stereos, iPods, and so many other small machines. Again, no central plan can determine in advance what is the most economically advantageous practice apart from real market experience.

It turns out, for example, that there was more wrong with my lawnmower this year than just the blade. One minute it ran fine, and then when I tried to restart, it would run for 3 or 4 seconds, and then sort of sputter out like it was out of gas. Now, I knew all about air filters, oil, blades, but how the fuel gets to the engine involved a part of this machine that I just hadn’t had any experience with.

I took it to the repair guy at the small-engine shop, who said he would be happy to work on it but it won’t be ready for two weeks. This of course is ridiculous. I asked him if he could fix it right now, since it will probably only take ten minutes. He said no, that would not be “fair to other customers.” I pointed out that fairness had nothing to do with it since his existing customers have already contracted to wait up to two weeks, whereas I would like to have mine fixed now. Still, even in the face of this impenetrable logic, he refused.

The next step was perfectly obvious. I had to go to a convenience store at the outskirts of town and wait for a customer who had the look of someone who knew about lawnmowers and ask him. Finally, the obvious candidate appeared and I marched up to him and told him what my mower was doing, replicating the sound. He knew immediately that it was the carburetor and explained how to clean it. Back home, I did what he said and the mower started right up again, and it gave me great satisfaction to know that the fool who was babbling on about fairness was denied my business.

Now, part of the reason it was urgent that I get this fixed right away had to do with an unlikely charitable act on my part, which brings me to another life-lesson given to us by the lawn experience. One day about a month ago, my neighbor’s lawn was looking pretty shabby but she was out of town. I waited as long as I could, and finally decided to undertake the good deed of mowing it. I did one better: I edged it, weed-and-feeded it, and weed-whacked it.

Glorious results, and when the neighbor returned she praised me to the skies.

Now, the wise reader is right now laughing at my incredible stupidity. Apparently the whole world knows a rule in life that had entirely escaped me: never mow your neighbor’s lawn lest you be stuck with the unpaid job for 20 years. It’s like giving a stray cat milk. It only seems like the right thing to do but you end up having to do it at regular intervals. Since my unfortunate act of charity, I found several people who have stumbled into this precise situation in which they end up mowing several people’s lawns on the weekend, and resenting the heck out of it.

So as I mowed and mowed, I begin to think about opportunity costs. I wonder what I could be doing right now that would actually earn me money. Perhaps, just perhaps, it is in my interest to actually pay someone to mow my neighbor’s lawn, pay someone to do my act of charity, so that I can earn money doing something else. Maybe everyone would benefit.

This really got me thinking about paid charity in general. What are the ethical issues associated with, for example, paying someone to stand in your place at the soup kitchen? Perhaps you could pay many people to do all your volunteer work for you, provided it is not too specialized and that the opportunity costs associated with your doing it exceed what you would have to shell out to volunteer by proxy. Isn’t this what we are really doing when we donate to charity?

You might say: hey, you are giving up the spiritual benefit that comes from doing the work yourself! Well, I can assure that the benefit I get from mowing my neighbor’s lawn is subject to the law of diminishing marginal utility. It is at least conceptually possible that doing good deeds should also be subject to the logic of the division of labor like everything else. You might say that is crass, but this much we learn from a weekend’s experience with the lawnmower: the market may not give us a perfect world, but market-based thinking can get us closer to the best possible world on which no amount of central planning could possibly ever improve.

Jeffrey Tucker [send him mail] is editorial vice president of www.Mises.org. Comment on the Mises blog.

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