Here’s an old principle that is often forgotten: “he who takes the king’s coin becomes the king’s man.”
This wisdom has many layers.
The most common understanding is that taking pay from another person or group reduces your independent judgment and action when it comes to them. If you work for Ford, for instance, you’re going to be less likely to make critiques of Ford trucks and more likely to feel compelled to go along with the company line (even if it’s wrong). If you receive a check from the government every month (whether you’re a fat cat corporation or a poor person on welfare) you’re also going to find it easier to be more compliant with the regime.
Choosing employment (or welfare) means you will constantly face the danger of becoming compromised by the “king’s coin” of a salary or wage or a welfare check. You may overcome that danger, but it will still be there.
But the “king’s coin” adage applies more widely than that.
If you live long enough, you will have to learn that nothing is purely free. In the words of another adage, “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” Either “free” goods/services are just introductory to paid ones (see: the “free” giveaways made to guilt you into buying later), or your attention/time/reputation is being sold (see: Facebook, Twitter, Google).
The same is true of accepting help from anyone, in any form. When someone gives you something, whether it’s time or financial aid or gifts, they are either making an investment or making a purchase.
If someone is making a “purchase,” they have something they want from you *now*. This has broad range: maybe they want money, or maybe they just want a “thank you” or a word of praise. For example, consider a colleague buying you a cup of coffee and then asking you if you would take care of a spreadsheet for them. You will have a harder time saying no to the spreadsheet if you accept the coffee.**
If someone is making an “investment”, they are gaining equity – a “stake” – in what you do *later*. Consider for example a parent who pays for their child’s education. Maybe the parent just wants to be able to call to give advice from time to time. Or perhaps the parent wants more: to guilt the child into choosing and keeping a certain career path. In either case, the child is going to have a harder time gaining independence because they have taken the investment (even if that investment is framed as a gift).
One of these courses is inevitable. Neither necessarily springs from malice. The giver may even intend for no strings to be attached. But it’s just a fact of the human psyche that receiving something makes us need to reciprocate – and giving something makes us expect reciprocity. So investments and purchases are not bad things. They’re natural. But it pays to pay attention and be conscious about transactions.
What is the lesson here?
1. Be careful who you ask for help. Be careful what help you ask for. Even if you believe that someone else “owes you” help, they may not have that same understanding.
2. Gain independence by standing on your own two feet. The less help you take, the more freedom you will have. If you need help, look for ways to make a clear, clean trade that you can live with: swap time for time, help for help, etc. (This is why entrepreneurs, even though they need others too, are freer – their contracts are more explicit and more easily fulfilled.)
3. Watch that you don’t misuse the giving of gifts or doing of favors. It feels good to build up a positive “social capital” balance with someone else by helping out, but it can be as toxic to be a lender as it is to be a debtor.
*This phrase likely originated with “the king’s shilling,” but the core truth has roots in much older wisdom around lenders and debtors.
**The economist Walter Block wrote about this a bit in Defending the Undefendable.
Photo by Marlon Ferrer on Unsplash