Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival.
–C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves
Worth, value, and price…these are terms used by economists to try to understand how people interact with the economic world.
Worth is a way of talking about how much “use” a commodity or service is to a particular individual. Take the service provided by a plumber: the worth of service is low to me if I have an only slightly annoying faucet drip. However, the worth of service is very high if I have a major water leak and my house is flooding.
Value is tougher. Value is “worth” to our economy in the abstract. The service provided by our plumber is valuable to our economy because of the benefits of managing water and waste flow. We could certainly do without but our economy would suffer.
Price is what the market says is the worth or value of the commodity or service; it is the voice of the collective…us. Our plumber charges some amount that the market will bear; in other words, what the average person will pay for the service.
Ideally, in any economic transaction all three line up: What I think a thing is worth is the same as its value to the economy and is the same as its price. None of us likes to pay more than we think something is worth. And sometimes, things are simply overvalued.
I went to a baseball game the other day. I like baseball. It brings me pleasure to sit in the stands on a warm, sunny day and watch a game; it is worth something to me. I paid $26 (USD), the market price of the ticket. That is about the upper limit to what I think it was worth to me; I would likely not have paid much more. As for value, though, I think the value of baseball is way out of line. Professional sports teams make the case for economic value to a city to justify the costs of a new stadium or salaries to players. Since stadiums continue to be built and player salaries continue to escalate, then clearly not everyone agrees with my value assessment of baseball.
Over the past years each American president has called for an increase in the numbers of scientists and engineers. This call indicates an understanding of the need for technological advancement, which leads to economic growth. Scientists and engineers are, therefore, highly valued in our economy. Playtime is also highly valued. It is important to occasionally escape from work that we might play, whether camping or fishing or golf, or…watching a baseball game. Play, after all, refreshes us and allows us to work more efficiently. So, playtime has value because it brings money into the economy and refreshes workers who work more effectively, thus, enhancing the economy.
Why stop with work or play? I can value a friendship because it may prove useful to me in an economic sense; maybe we will end up doing business together or maybe my friend will throw business my way. The arts, too. We build museums and theaters only after economic studies show they will enhance the local economy.
The economy, stupid.
“The economy, stupid” was a central point in Bill Clinton’s successful bid for the presidency in 1992. Is it really all about the economy? Is all of value in life to be subject to economic evaluation? Why has no American President called for more artists, poets, or philosophers?
In our economic-growth mindset we have lost the ancient idea of leisure. Aristotle believed that we were unleisurely, at work and play, so that we could be leisurely, which is the center of culture. Today, we have co-opted the word, leisure, absorbing it into “play.” For Westerners, there is now only work and play, both of which we try to do “hard.” This couldn’t be more different from the historical understanding of leisure. Now, our word that comes closest to the ancient understanding of leisure is “contemplation”; however, even that does not quite capture the proper sense.
Leisure, as understood by the ancients–Greeks and Romans–was to engage in something for its own sake. In Lewis’ view of friendship, above, one spends time with a friend for the sake of the friendship and nothing else. Schools (Greek skole) were originally conceived as places of learning for its own sake rather than the trade schools they have become. Van Gogh was famous for his study of color for its own sake rather than the expectancy of economic benefit. Surely there might have been some local economic benefit to his working a job rather than playing with colored yarn; however, culturally we would be so much the poorer had he not engaged in the leisure of the arts.
This is not to say that leisure cannot result in economic benefit; however, it “results” is never the goal of a leisurely activity. As schools today cut back on forms of liberal arts education–forms of leisure–we lose the ability to appreciate people, experiences, and things for their own sake. If our activity has no economic value, then we turn away with both our time and our money; after all, if there is no economic value, the its worth to me is zero, which is the price I assign it.
We ignore leisure at the cost of our own souls. Leisure allows us to escape the confines of our environment, whether at work or play, and move beyond ourselves, to tap into those parts of us that are not practical, to enter into the sphere of wonder and awe. Ultimately, leisure is what allows us, in the words of poet Magee, to “put out my hand and touch the face of God.”