Knowing Which Screw to Turn, and How Far to Turn it

One of our writers here at Actual Anarchy recently had a plumbing issue that required repair.  After all was said and done, the plumber took about 5 minutes to fix the problem.

I recently had a similar experience where we had some rodents in our crawl space under the house chew through our water intake pipes.  It was spraying pressurized water under the house for days before we discovered it (on a Sunday of course!  It seems most of our issues necessitating medical or trade expertise happen on a Sunday for us).  The plumber came out the next morning and was gone 17 minutes later, with the problem fixed.

These situations remind me of that story about a guy needing something fixed and asking how much it would cost. Some pricey, but reasonable number was quoted and agreed to. Then the repair guy spent about 10 seconds fixing the problem. The homeowner was upset and said something like, “all you did was take a screwdriver and turn something a little bit and you’re going to charge me $X-hundred dollars?!?!”

The repair guy replies:

“you’re not paying me to turn the screw, you’re paying me to know which one and how far to turn it”.

This is usually an argument for a labor theory of value justification as you are paying for all the labor and effort that went in to training to learn their trade.

I look at it differently.

Ex ante, the homeowner and repair guy both felt they would be better off if the problem was remedied. It should not matter how long it takes. In fact, the homeowner should be ecstatic that it was a simple repair and was completed rapidly. Also, he should appreciate that the division of labor provided an expert in the particular situation to satisfy his needs.

Thank god for the division of labor.

2 Replies to “Knowing Which Screw to Turn, and How Far to Turn it”

  1. Reminds me of the story of a man who approached Picasso at a restaurant requesting he draw something on a napkin. The man offered to pay a fair price. After completing the drawing, Picasso said, “$25,000 please.” The man aghast said, “It took you less than a minute to draw that,” to which Picasso replied, “Yes, but it to 25 years for my signature to be worth something.”

    The story may be apocryphal, but the point is well made.

  2. One other small point about my Picasso comment. Some versions of the story have Picasso saying, “It took me 25 years to learn to do that.” Some prefer that version because it elevates skills and knowledge. Perhaps they feel that trading on popularity or speculative value is somehow unworthy. But that’s wrong, and you put your finger on why. The Labor Theory of Value is totally wrong. Menger and the Austrians got it right! Value is a subjective thing that is manifest only in voluntary exchange.

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