The Distortion of Value in the Modern World

Recently, I’ve been very taken by the idea of starting a homemade soap business. Here’s why.

No, I’m not having a Tyler Durden moment triggered by some quarter-life crisis. I just think soaps are great, we all need soap, and as a maker of soap, you’re creating something decidedly tangible, something of true value.

Value is an important concept to me. I define it as the quality possessed by anything to fulfill a basic human need.

People like to think money is valuable. In and of itself, money has no intrinsic value, you can neither eat stacks of currency bills when you’re hungry nor clothe your naked body with them; well, not satisfactorily anyway.

Money does represent value in that you can buy things with it. To draw an analogy from the world of computer programming, it’s a pointer. I think a lot of us are confusing the pointer with the actual thing it points to.

I respect a farmer who makes little money but produces something that fulfills a basic physical need, more, than say, a stockbroker who bets on money to make more money and then uses the profit to make, you guessed it, money.

I call this the scale of declining usefulness.

Now, we can do better without stockbrokers, wine tasters, art critics, and sportsmen, than we would without the people on the left side of the scale.

Of course, this isn’t a foolproof argument and you could make countless counterarguments about it, many valid, which I won’t get into here. I’m going to instead talk about the one thing that is readily apparent:

Generally speaking, we place a lower value on people in lines of work that actually produce tangible things; as opposed to more abstract ones. This is clear by the disparity in their monetary compensations.

Now here’s the usual argument I get for this:

“But listen, stockbrokers require more education and training than farmers, and therefore command a higher income, as simple as that. It’s economics 101, man.”

No, you listen to me, you’re just justifying an unfavorable outcome of capitalism by using its own terminology. If this is the outcome of economics, well then, it’s flawed and we need to fix it.

Isn’t this shortsighted? As time goes on and more freedom of choice starts landing into the hands of the people in the first group… what incentive will they have to keep doing what they do? What if all the farmers give up farming to become hedge fund managers? That can’t happen, you say.

Sure, maybe they won’t all become hedge fund managers in the next 10 years and not all at the same time, but they sure wouldn’t keep on farming if things don’t change. In fact, many great civilizations have collapsed in the past due to a progressively diminishing agricultural base.

Apart from intrinsic value, another thing I care about is meaning. Now this is a personal thing. Honestly, on most days I envy people who don’t have any hangups about what they’re doing in their lives as long as they hear the sound of ka-ching at the end of the month.

I need my work to count, to make a difference to somebody, or at the very least, something. Otherwise, what’s the point of it all?

This is complex issue. It won’t be solved overnight. Here’s what we can do to help at our own individual level though: Choose to do something that counts.

In the meanwhile, if you need me, I’ll be here melting soap.

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