Giving Versus Exchanging

“What do you do for a living?” “Me? Oh, I’m a programmer.” “You know computers? Can you help me fix mine?” How many of you have had this exact conversation? Judging by conversations with my computer savvy friends there is a 100% correlation between having computer knowledge and being asked to fix computers. The same applies to having any skill set. When I was working as a mechanic people would ask me to look at their cars when I wasn’t at work. The issue isn’t people asking me to fix their computers or vehicles but the expectation that I will do it for free.

Whenever somebody asks me to fix their computer or vehicles I have a standard response: “Absolutely! Let’s discuss prices.” Usually the person asking seems to be offended by that response. It’s as if they believe my time and knowledge, which they have admitted to wanting, are somehow worthless.

This may be the only time you’ll see my reference Atlas Shrugged. Although it’s dreck any novel that’s 1,000,000,000 pages long is likely to make at least one valid point if for no other reason than by accident. There is a scene where Objectivst Jesus is going to take Dangy on a tour of his holy land. Since he’s the messiah he has no need for worldly possessions or something and needs to borrow a car. When he calls up his disciple to ask to borrow the car a price in gold is negotiated. That scene stuck with me because both characters expected an exchange, not for one to give to the other (in fact Objectivist Jesus then made a quip about “give” being some kind of dirty work in his valley). Thinking back on it I think I understand why the novel is so popular with high school students who have been indoctrinated to “share” (really to give something of theirs up without compensation) for most of their lives. But I digress.

The difference between most people who ask me to fix their computers or vehicles and the scene I just described in Atlas Shrugged is that the former expects me to give while the latter expects an exchange. Giving dictates that somebody who has something should allow other people to have it without expecting any compensation. Exchanging dictates that goods and services have value and therefore are deserving of compensation.

When you ask somebody to borrow or do something for free you’re being hypocritical. First you’re implying you don’t believe the thing you’re requesting has any real value by not offering anything for it while also necessarily implying the thing has value by wanting it.

It’s a bit offensive to have somebody imply my skills are worthless and then ask to benefit from them. That’s not to say I expect everybody to offer me the usual market value of my time. Even a token offering is appreciated. For example, the cost of the time needed to fix a computer is usually higher than the cost of a box of cookies. But I’m still willing to fix a computer for people I know if they offer to bake me some cookies. Usually I’ll turn down the offer (then they’ll insist and bake them anyways) because it’s not about the payment, it’s about the acknowledgement that my skills are worth something to them (a token of appreciation if you will).

The idea behind an exchange is that two people are in possession of something the other wants. Both people feel as though they’ll be better off in the end if they exchange their thing for the other person’s thing. Exchanges are the foundation of markets so in a way markets are a mechanism for people to compliment one another. When you offer to make an exchange you’re complimenting the other person’s effort by saying effort is worth more than something you have.

If you’re one of those people who reflexively asks, “Will you fix my computer,” every time somebody says they make a living off of computers please stop. Instead ask something like, “What would you charge me to fix my computer?” At the very least please don’t get offended when the computer person asks for something in exchange. Their time, like your time, is worth money. Acknowledge that mutual worth.

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