polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Imaginary Value

by Peter Sigrist

Spending time indoors with family, I'm reminded of the children's book Frederick, by Leo Lionni. It's about a mouse who gathers memories of pleasant weather as his companions gather supplies for winter. This seems irresponsible, even parasitic, until his stories brighten everyone's long wait for spring.

According to a summary, Frederick's stories help the other mice endure after their food runs out. My childhood memories of this story don't include the food running out. I'm not sure why the hungry mice wouldn't find Frederick's stories annoying, given that the food might not have run out if he would have helped gather supplies.

It seems the story would be better without the food running out, as this would be a less problematic reminder of the many different ways of contributing to society. The other mice generously accept Frederick and appreciate his contribution. This shows that there's more to life than basic survival, and that quality of life can be improved in unexpected ways.

In considering quality of life, questions of value are essential. How does value relate to individual and collective values? Is it best determined through markets? Are there other ways to add value creatively while making sure our food doesn't run out?

Credits: Illustration of Frederick by Leo Lionni.