In Praise of Misers

on Monday, April 25, 2011

Here, Steven Landsburg writes in praise of misers.  Steve is correct to praise misers for creating wealth; this they do well. He is incorrect to praise them for hoarding and avoiding the active use of that wealth. People make the world richer in two ways. The first is in transforming the world around them into more valuable things. A series of blank pages are worth less than the same pages filled with entertaining words, art, or poetry. A pile of wood is worth less than a home. This is the process of wealth-creation, and misers are presumably very good at this.

The second way the world becomes a richer, more enjoyable place to live is through voluntary trade. When I become very good at making wine, and you become very good at making cheese, we are both better off when we trade with each other. Without the trade, the expert winemaker is stuck with mediocre cheese, and the expert cheese maker is stuck with average wine. This is the fault of the miser; his refusal to interact with the world is not a good thing for anyone but himself (he values being the way he is).

Scrooge is not helping the world by removing himself from it (but he is not harming it either). Imagine I build a house from the trees on my land, make wine from grapes, develop new cheeses by milking my own cows and harvest spices and store all of it in the house that I built with my own hands. I dig a mine and pull gold and silver from the ground beneath my feet. I store them in my basement as well. I spend time painting beautiful works of art. I create sculptures and write fantastically entertaining novels. All of these are stored in my home, and are never traded or shared with the world.

I would be a wealthy man, enjoying the fruits of my own labor. Eventually, when I die, the world will see what I have made, auction off my wealth, and the world will be a better place because of the things that I have made. The question is, would the world have been a better place if I had chosen to leave my land from time to time, trading the things I had made for the things others had made? Is it really best to sequester one's self from the world? Is the world not a better place when two men engage in voluntary exchange?

Misers are good for the world because they create wealth, but idealizing a man who is unwilling to trade with others is just plain silly. Should we not idealize the men who create massive amounts of wealth, and engage in actively trading that wealth with others?