By Boyd Matheson

In 1779, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to a friend in which he described how it is often easy to pay too much for things of lesser value. He described how people sacrifice too much of their time, talent, health or personal freedom for shiny objects or interesting pursuits that may provide temporary joy but are a bad bargain in the end.

In his letter, Franklin illustrated the point with a lesson from his childhood. He wrote:

When I was a child of seven years old, my friends, on a holiday, filled my pocket with coppers. I went directly to a shop where they sold toys for children; and being charmed with the sound of a whistle…I voluntarily offered and gave all my money for one. I then came home and went whistling all over the house, much pleased with my whistle, but disturbing all the family. My brothers, and sisters, and cousins, understanding the bargain I had made, told me I had given four times as much for it as it was worth; and laughed at me so much for my folly, that I cried with vexation; and the reflection gave me much more chagrin than the whistle gave me pleasure. 

He continued:

This, however, was afterwards of use to me, the impression continuing on my mind so that often when I was tempted to buy some unnecessary thing, I said to myself, Don’t give too much for the whistle.

As I grew up, came into the world, and observed the actions of men, I thought I met with many, very many, who gave too much for the whistle.  

Recognizing the many ways we all give too much for the whistle is not difficult, but does require a little bit of honest introspection. Sacrificing health in the pursuit of pleasure, neglecting loved ones to chase a career, or racking up debilitating debt to purchase toys and travel are just a few of the ways we give too much for the whistle. Such transactions may provide fleeting feelings of euphoria or fun but in the end result in far more chagrin than true happiness. It’s easy in the 21st century to regularly to give too much for the whistle.

Giving too much for the whistle is not limited to monetary transactions, but often transcends to our personal freedom, integrity and character. Giving too much for the whistle not only happens to individuals, but collectively it happens in communities, states and nations.

When we look to Washington to solve our problems – we give too much for the whistle.

When we demonize those we disagree with to score political points or win an argument – we give too much for the whistle.

When we simply throw money at our problems in education, healthcare or the economy – we definitely give too much for the whistle.

When we hand over our individual rights for promises of security – we give too much for the whistle.

When we allow unelected and unchecked bureaucrats to make and enforce oppressive, overbearing or burdensome regulations in the name of the public good –

we give too much for the whistle.

When we settle for the comfortable certainty of the status quo – in government, in our leaders and especially in ourselves – we give too much for the whistle.

When we trap people in poverty through well-meaning programs that provide the poor with exactly the means they need to stay exactly where they are – we give too much for the whistle.

When we choose to pursue political interests over proven principles and sound policy – we give too much for the whistle.

When states happily receive vast sums of federal money while accepting the strings and shackles that go with it – we all give too much for the whistle.

When we limit our thinking to the talking points of our preferred media pundits or outlets – we give too much for the whistle.

And, when we abdicate to the government our responsibility to help the poor and the needy – we give too much for the whistle.

Benjamin Franklin was right. He concluded his letter by saying, “In my opinion we might all draw more good from [the world] than we do, and suffer less evil, if we would take care not to give too much for whistles.”

For Sutherland Institute, this is Boyd Matheson. Thanks for engaging – because principle matters.

This post is an edited transcript of Principle Matters, a weekly radio commentary broadcast on several radio stations across the country. The podcast can be found below.

Receive this broadcast each week directly via iTunes by clicking here

Boyd Matheson is president of Sutherland Institute. Boyd, who served as chief of staff for Utah Senator Mike Lee in Washington, D.C., has a wealth of experience as a coach, executive adviser and business consultant. In addition to his service as Sen. Lee’s chief of staff, Boyd most recently built a successful political consulting firm advising national and state elected officials and candidates. From 2005 to 2012, he served as president of Trillium Strategies, a consulting firm focused on branding, business transformation and operational excellence. Boyd and his wife, Debbie, have five children and four grandchildren.


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