Thursday, May 20, 2004


Here is a new column by Burgess Laughlin. Have you purchased his book yet?

Hierarchical Trading

"We, who live by values, not by loot, are traders, both in matter and in spirit."[1]

The reason for living in society is trade. The vast network we call society is largely a network of trade of one form or another, directly or indirectly.

Trading what? Common examples are trading money for groceries, or labor for money. Concrete-bound mentalities stop there in an examination of trade. There are other forms of trade.


Some individuals have an internal conflict over doing favors for others. This conflict is needless. The same principles apply to trading favors that apply to trading money for groceries. For example, if I do a job-related favor for a co-worker -- one that helps him do his job and helps the company improve its profit -- there is a trade.

A tiny example is holding a co-worker's cup of coffee while he quickly grabs his ringing cell phone.

Why do such favors? First, generally speaking, I am being paid to increase the company's profit, not merely to do a strictly circumscribed job. I always do such favors, assuming that, first, doing them doesn't undermine my particular job assignments, and, second, that the co-worker reciprocates someday and in some way.

Of course, if there is no trade, short-term or long-term, or if doing a favor creates a sacrifice because I cannot do my own narrowly defined job, then I would need to take some other action such as saying no or discussing the conflict with my manager.


Let's say that on a certain morning I have a headache as I walk up to my bus stop. A casual acquaintance standing at the stop asks, "How are you?" I might either shrug or briefly answer, "Okay." This near-stranger offers me nothing that would lead me to give him more information.

On the same day, my employer gives me an immediate assignment. He says it is the most important task I will every have in this job. He then asks, "How are you feeling at the moment?" I explain, at whatever length is required, that I am feeling somewhat ill, but that I am confident I can do the assignment (or I will suggest that he find someone else for this task, to ensure success on the project). Giving him that information is part of the pattern of trade I have established with him and the company that employs both of us.

Later in the day, if I meet my closest friend for dinner, and she asks, "How are you?" -- then I might explain at some length that I am feeling ill and why. Judging me is important to her, and she deserves enough information to make an informed decision about my behavior.

The general rule is: The more I value another person, the more information I offer. Shutting out highly valued individuals is a contradiction in evaluation.


What determines how much we offer and how much we expect in return? Each person's hierarchy of values is the guide. That principle applies as much to spiritual, social, and other nonmaterial values as it does to material ones.

Burgess Laughlin
The Aristotle Adventure -- a book for students and general readers of history.

[1] Quotation from "Galt's Speech" (in Atlas Shrugged), reproduced in For the New Intellectual, p. 163 (hardbound) or p. 133 (paperback), and excerpted in "Trader Principle," The Ayn Rand Lexicon.