Monday, January 09, 2006

Ikea and the Free-loader Nation

When I came across Stephen Green’s fisking of an article in the German publication Der Spiegel regarding Ikea and its new role as provider of cheap welfare (hattip: Ed Driscoll) I was more entertained by the facts of the story than Vodkapundit’s supposedly humorous analysis. In summary, old retirees and the unemployed in Germany who are constrained by a fixed income have now made the Swedish furniture stores their center for affordable meals, free day care and free baby food. The author begins with an anecdotal example:

Every day, at 8.50 am, Bodo Scheel gets into his Nissan car, his stomach rumbling with hunger, and drives 11.3 kilometers down the A7 highway near Hamburg. He turns off at junction 23 to reach his destination: the Ikea furniture store. The 67-year-old pensioner has been coming to the restaurant in Ikea for breakfast for years now. The deal is unbeatable: For €1.50 he gets two bread rolls, butter, cold cuts and cheese, jam and even smoked salmon. As much coffee as he can drink is also thrown in. "You can take the bread rolls home and they are still okay to eat three days later with a tin of tuna," Scheel, who used to work as a judicial officer, says. "Tastes great." The pensioner and his wife are not the only ones who have turned going to the furniture shop into a daily ritual. In the western German cities of Cologne and Bielefeld there are even specially organized breakfast clubs. From Munich in the south to Kiel in the north, Ikea is increasingly turning into a welfare center for pensioners, young moms, low-earners and the unemployed.

Mr. Green in his fisking of the article chooses to mock the journalist’s implied indictment of capitalistic institutions like Ikea in providing useful services to many of its customers. I instead was struck by a far graver problem than that: the very fact that there are hordes of people who rely on the cheap and disgusting menu offered at the Ikea cafeteria is a stinging indictment against the integrity of the German social system. Not only are meals much lower priced than elsewhere but even the daycare is free:

More than food-scroungers, though, IKEA workers fear lazy parents. Around 150 three- to 10-year-olds are deposited daily at the Hamburg-Schnelsen store's play area -- a complimentary offer to allow mom and dad to wander in peace through the showrooms. But many people misuse the service as a free babysitting service. Sometimes moms just set their loved ones down among the colorful balls, with the nursery girl watching -- and hurries to the hairstylist or the tennis court. The desperate store announcements asking the mother to please pick up her screeching child then go unheeded.

So it isn’t free in the sense that parents are expected to use it however they wish. Isn’t daycare in much of Europe subsidized anyway? And why is it so necessary to have to horde so much baby formula? As a new parent, I’m fully aware of the cost of baby food, but I could never bring myself to do what these upstanding citizens of the most progressive welfare state do:

So little kids don't starve during these marathon tours, IKEA also offers free Alete baby food. The offer has caught on: Cheapskates collect the 190-gram bottles like batteries and stockpile them up at home -- around 1,500 a month go missing from the Schnelsen store alone.

What is left of their pride? What is left of the dignity to pay for things from one’s own pocket instead of waiting for the next unearned handout? And most importantly, what is left of having actual taste buds and an appreciations for the finer things when gobbling down the most atrociously disgusting food ever from the least respectable cuisine in all of Europe (Swedish food anyone?)?

The most glaring lesson from this article is how government welfare policies of Germany have cultivated the virtue of free-loading and scrounging in a society that is relatively prosperous by any universal standard. I understand the impulse to chase a great deal and cut corners to save money for other pursuits. But I’m confident that pride in ownership, of having earned a benefit prevents many from simply free-loading. And even if some still try to get something for nothing every time, I know of few in America who openly declare their free-loading to the world like these German pensioners in the article do.

Maybe this is why the right to private property is so important in free societies. As soon as a government entity assumes ownership of an object or service, its value no longer exists to the person who uses it. When a person has personally invested little or none into something, then a product or service becomes a worthless commodity, or ‘free’. These things of course have a cost and someone elsewhere is paying for all of these, but they have relatively little real value to those who don’t assume the cost. When a third party assumes a large part or all the costs of a product, the value of the product diminishes to such an extent that it encourages rational people to treat and consume it as if it were worthless. Ironically, for a company that is amazingly cost-efficient and all too happy to make its customers do the hard work of finishing off their products for them (i.e. assembling their furniture) It appears Ikea has made the mistake of assuming too much of the cost of taking care of its customers that it now has to deal with a loyal class of free-loaders.

I could be wrong, but somehow I just don’t quite see the same phenomenon taking place in the U.S. Although we like to hear that we can get “something for nothing”, we know fully well that such an offer functions as a warning, which is why we naturally respond “what’s the catch?” Apparently many Germans living on handouts would respond that there’s no catch at all, that they get something for nothing all the time and you would be foolish not to be in on it yourself.

Note: Duane over at The Forest For The Trees shares similar thoughts on the story.

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