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David Bouchier: Value for money

Mark Lennihan

The Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde once defined a cynic as “A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” We all know people like this, the most boring of all boring conversationalists, who talk obsessively about prices, values and bargains, especially around Black Friday, as if a bargain was a victory for the buyer rather than the seller.

There’s nothing wrong with value for money. The problem is that we can’t define it. This may be because, as Wilde hinted, value and money are such very different things. It’s like saying that we want the right amount of Renaissance art for the right number of fried potatoes — the two things just can’t be compared. This doesn’t stop us from trying, or from being seduced by commercial promises — good value, better value, best value, unbeatable value. Nobody knows what value is and, for that very reason, it has an almost mystical significance.

Reason and common sense have nothing to do with it. The perpetual Antiques Road Show on television is a good example. The process called “appraisal” is a kind of dark magic by which “value” is created out of thin air. Hideously ugly and useless objects are valued at astonishingly high prices simply because they are rare. Most of them should be rare, or even nonexistent. Other, much more attractive objects are valued at next to nothing, just because they are common. Where’s the sense in that?

If we start thinking seriously about value for money the ambiguities will drive us crazy. What’s the real value of a ticket to the opera, or to a baseball match, or to Australia? It all depends. We can buy a pair of shoes for $50 or $500. Both pairs will keep the soles of our feet off the ground, but which is the best value? It all depends.

I suggest that, in the end, the best value for money is always very personal. It is the price we are willing to pay for whatever best expresses our personal tastes and interests. We value what we pay for, and we pay for what we value — or at least we should.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.