Mises Wire

The Unseen Cost of Shoveling Snow

“Sophistry?” my indignant neighbor replied, shovel raised.

“Yes,” I responded, raising my shovel in response, “pure sophistry.”

How did we, two friendly neighbors, end up in such a confrontation? What was the reason for raising shovels instead of slinging snow? To answer that, we must go back in time.

The weather forecasters had predicted rain, followed by ice, and then by snow. Panic was everywhere, which usually means nothing would be the result — and I had hoped as much. Sure, we might get a little rain and a little ice and snow, but only as minor inconveniences.

However, it rained — a lot. Then the temperature plummeted and ice fell from the sky. Finally, the snow came — inches. Stores closed and traffic clogged, causing major inconveniences.

Once it stopped, homeowners ventured out to begin clearing and chipping, hard work, to say the least. As I pushed and tossed snow higher and higher, I noted my neighbor humming, cheerful in his work.

I asked, “Why all the cheer? Aren’t your arms tired and your back sore?” To which he replied,” Sure, but I am doing great things today. Thank goodness for the ice and snow.”

“Great things? Your shoveling snow and chipping ice — hard, back-breaking labor.”

“Oh, no. If it hadn’t snowed, I would have been doing something less — caning an old chair, a work of lesser value. So, instead of doing the lesser, I am doing the greater. And I am better off since my labor is devoted to that which I value more, a cleared driveway. I am being more productive and, hence, improving my lot.”

“What? You lost me.”

“Look, I value — and my wife values — a cleared driveway over the other work I had planned for this weekend. Instead of wasting my time producing lesser value — caning that old chair, I am devoting my labor to clearing my driveway. So, again, if the snow had passed, as folks like you had hoped, I would be worse off.”

“Worse off?”

“Yes. Your supposed snow disaster is no disaster at all. It is an opportunity for each of us to devote our labor to the better. I mean, you obviously value a cleared driveway over anything else you would have done this weekend. Why else would you be pushing a shovel like me?”

I stopped for a moment to formulate what I hoped was a decent response.

I began, “If the storm had passed to the north or south as I hoped, your driveway would have remained clear and you would have had your chair caned. But since the storm hit us directly, after your hours of labor and days of recovery, you will only be where you were the morning of the storm. And you are out a caned chair and left with a sore back and tired arms. You are certainly not better off.”

“No, you are wrong. Disasters always produce positive results. They allow men and women to devote their labor to activities each value greater than non-disaster alternatives. That is true, regardless of whether the disaster is a hurricane or snowstorm, or something else. I am creating more value today than I would have absent the snow and ice. So I am, without a doubt, better off.”

“But you chair isn’t going to be caned.”

“Why do I care? I desire that less than a cleared driveway.”

“You should care. Your driveway would have been clear — not cleared, but clear — without the storm. You are focusing on the seen — your soon-to-be-cleared driveway, all the while ignoring the unseen — your cane-bare chair. Your whole argument is nothing but sophistry.”

As noted above, that last word was impetus for his shovel to rise in — to my perception — an offensive gesture, followed by mine in a defensive one.

As we stared at each other, a thought came to me, “So, assuming I hit you with my shovel and open a wound on your forehead — a true disaster from your standpoint, I will be giving you the opportunity to redevote your labor, this time to something you value greater — your health — than your cleared driveway. I will be doing you a favor, improving your lot. Agreed?”

He tilted his head for a moment and then quickly lowered his shovel. The smile drained from his face, just as the energy drained from his back and arms. He looked at me and said, “Man, I hate this snow.”

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