I hate mowing my lawn. My lawnmower is hard to start up and I’m too cheap to buy a new one. The weed-whacker is constantly running out of that fishing line stuff it uses, and I’m terrible at replacing it. I’m constantly worried about poison ivy, which I’m deathly allergic to. I’m actually writing this article so that I don’t have to mow my lawn. I don’t mean that I’m procrastinating, though that is part of it. I’m hoping to sell this article, and if I can I’ll use the money to pay my neighbor (who does landscaping) to mow my lawn. With that extra time, I’ll do some more writing or maybe go for a run.
An economist would pat me on the back for this behavior, because I’m engaging in something called comparative advantage. In short, the theory of comparative advantage suggests that people’s time is best spent doing what they are best at (or best compensated for). As an engineer/writer, I should not learn to replace my leaky toilet; instead, I should spend my time making money at my jobs, getting better at them, and then use my money to hire a trained plumber to replace that leaky toilet.
This all sounds great, and from a strict ‘by the numbers’ perspective, it is probably correct. But I have reservations about this theory when applied to personal lives, and I believe that it should be avoided just as much as it’s employed. Here’s why:
You Can’t Make Money All Day For most of us, there is not an opportunity to do our jobs for the sixteen hours that we’re awake. There are not enough people buying my articles, and my job does not allow for unlimited overtime. That leaves some amount of time left in the day. Should we spend all of that time relaxing while others do our work? Or is there value in doing work that expands our skills, saves us money, and get us exercise? I believe that there is.
It’s Too Often an Excuse to Get Out of Work I find that I use comparative advantage to justify not wanting to roll up my sleeves and actually do some hard work. It’s important to distinguish between a solid argument and an excuse. When I pay an electrician because I don’t want to be electrocuted, I think I’m on solid footing with my argument. But when I pay for sealcoating on my driveway, I have to admit to myself that I just don’t feel like learning and doing the work.
Sweat Equity Builds your Nest Egg If you put money into an investment account every time you were going to hire someone but didn’t, you’d be surprised at how quickly your investments would grow. Then when you’re older and unable to use your body for hard work, you can pay someone else. Think of it as ‘work now instead of later’.
You Don’t Want to Become an Insect Not to be an alarmist, but here is the logical conclusion of comparative advantage: every person spends all day doing the one thing they are best compensated for. Not just the one job – the one task. Even my writing would need to fall away, because I’m paid more as an engineer.Do we want that world, efficient as it would be? Or do we want to be well-rounded, curious and useful members of society? I know I prefer the latter.
But I don’t want to mow my lawn anymore. So what do I do? Life is about balance, so I think I’ll keep getting my lawn mowed, but look for other areas to save money as a counterweight. And I won’t delude myself – I’m not doing this for an economic theory. It’s because I hate mowing my lawn.