Sunday, July 1, 2012

An Allegory

One time, while sailing across the ocean, a ship full of people ran into a storm. Thrown severely off course, they ran aground near an island. All of the ship's passengers and crew removed what they could from the sinking ship and brought it ashore.

It was unclear at first whether there were other people on the island, but it was pretty quickly discovered that there were no other people. There were birds, and other animals; there was a good supply of fresh water from a spring; but there were no people. Because the people from the ship didn't have any idea as to how long it would be before they would be found by search and rescue parties, they decided to build shelters.

There was a rich supply of wood on the island, and there were also many brick-sized stones about that people began to use in their shelters. These gray stones, it turned out, had many uses. In addition to being good for carving, they could also be clacked together to generate sparks for fire-making.

One day a couple of men were sitting about, discussing the many uses of these gray stones and decided that they would take it upon themselves to scour the island and collect all of these stones and hide them in a cave. Then, they reasoned, since people seem to need them to make fires, a good price could be extracted for the stones. After drinking some of the last of the ship's coffee, they started collecting.

At first people didn't pay much attention to the work of the collectors, except perhaps to inquire as to what type of project required so many stones. But most of the work was done at a distance from the village, and people could not see what was happening. Soon the collectors were only working at night. And after a few weeks nearly all of the island's stones had been removed to a hidden cave in the interior of the island.

It did not take long for people to notice that the formerly plentiful gray stones were no longer so plentiful. Whenever anyone needed one, however, one of the collectors would be able to accommodate their needs - for a price of course. Soon people were trading various things, or even performing labor for the collectors, in order to secure some of the necessary gray stones.

It was not long before someone inquired as to how it came to be that what was formerly plentiful and shared by everyone had now come to be the monopoly of the collectors.

When another reminded people that the collectors had been collecting the gray stones for a few weeks, and that this was most likely the project they had in mind all along, the people of the island grew angry and demanded that the gray stones be returned. As the peoples' anger at the collectors grew, the collectors grew more and more insistent that they did not have to share the gray stones with anyone. The gray stones, they argued, had become their personal property.

As everyone needed the gray stones, all on the island were affected by the collectors' actions. And finally the people and the collectors decided that they would hold a sort of trial. They would agree on a few judges to settle the matter once and for all.

The selection of the judges was itself a trying process, with many openly wondering why the people were deferring their judgment to judges in the first place. This was no difficult question. The gray stones were there and everyone used them. Then these collectors pretty much stole them. While many agreed that the collectors had stolen the gray stones from the community, they now needed to get these gray stones returned. And, it was thought, having a trial was the best way to accomplish this.

The day of the trial arrived. A representative of the collectors explained that the collectors wanted to provide a service to people; that the collectors were concerned about the gray stones being exposed to the elements. Since they are so valuable, they wanted to put them in a safe place. And putting them into the safe place, and taking them out again, takes a lot of effort, which should be compensated.

The people had a representative who explained to the judges what the judges already knew - that the collectors had pretty much stolen the gray stones and now were trying to sell back to the people what should have never been taken in the first place.

It did not take long for each side to make their arguments. And when the judges had heard everything, they retired to a hut to discuss the matter. Their thoughts were the subject of endless speculation. And then one morning the judges announced that they had reached a decision. They had considered all of the arguments. And because everyone needs gray stones, in the interest of fairness and justice, everyone ought to have gray stones. In fact, they continued, it is so important to have gray stones that we are making it a law that you have to have gray stones. And if you don't have gray stones you will be fined.

And how will we get the gray stones? someone asked. Do the collectors have to return the stones to us? asked another. No, spoke the judges, you will have to buy the stones from the collectors. If you don't buy the gray stones from the collectors, you will be punished with a fine.

Many began to cheer the decision. What is wrong with you? asked some of the others. This is not what we wanted. We wanted our stones returned to us. Now these collectors not only keep the stones, but we have to buy stones from them whether we want to or not. Why are you cheering? We are in a worse position than before. No, you don't understand, came the reply from those cheering. See, before if you gave something to the collectors for a gray stone, they might never give you the gray stone. Or, they might give it to you, but then at night they might take it back. But, don't you see, now they are no longer allowed to do that.

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