And yet, I never realized how the literal meaning of this saying is
inappropriate as an illustration of the abstract principle it is
purported to illustrate. Have my cake? What for? The entire purpose of a
cake is to be eaten. Now or later, is the only question. Maybe I'm sated
right now, and I can't eat it; but trust me, I will, as soon as I have
space in my stomach. Maybe I want to eat it later with someone I love,
to create a magic moment after dinner. But in the meantime, if anything,
the having of it is a liability, not an asset: the cake may melt or go
stale, oxidize, ferment or rot, it may be dropped, squished, sat on,
forgotten, lost, stolen or eaten by someone else; I may have to carry it
carefully wherever I go, or make a detour to store it in the fridge and
then fetch it again later.
Really, who wants to have a cake? Even the baker is all too eager
to find someone to sell it to, someone who will want it for the eating.
If you offer it to a friend, you won't expect your friend to frame it,
but to eat it. Finally, I don't know about you, but when I was a kid,
the best way to have another slice of cake was to promptly finish the
current one; there was no extra cake as long as my plate wasn't emptied,
and if I took too long to finish it, there might be no cake left for an
extra slice as others may have eaten it all.
But perhaps, after all, these are also important points to be made about
opportunity cost, and the saying can remind us of these points as well
as of the main concept.
What economists call economic cost, or opportunity cost, is what you
have to forsake when you make a choice; and they call benefit what you
gain from an opportunity that you wouldn't have gotten from other
opportunities to use the same resources. For whichever way you look at
things (and ultimately, which way you do look at things is indeed your
own choice and responsibility, with its own costs and benefits), the
available opportunities are never equal to each other (otherwise,
there's only one opportunity and no real choice). Some opportunities are
obviously better (eating the cake, sooner than later), as compared to
other opportunities that are obviously worse (hoarding the cake until it
Of course, "better" or "worse" only make sense as part of such a
comparison between opportunities; it is always relative to the
interests, goals and values of whichever individual is making the
choice; and it is always done according to his limited knowledge of a
specific context. (Don't eat the poisoned cake... unless it's an
elaborate suicide; but maybe you didn't know it was poisoned.)
When you are offered a new opportunity, it only matters if this
opportunity is better than the one you would otherwise have gone for, at
which point its benefit is the increase in enjoyment: "Will you trade
your cake for mine? Well, sure, that way we can each enjoy a cake we
like better." That's a mutual benefit considering how much you and I,
with our different tastes, prefer our new cakes to the old ones. Or "No,
thanks" — maybe you'd prefer my cake to yours, but so do I, and so this
opportunity is of no benefit to me.
Similarly, when denied an existing opportunity, it only matters if this
was the previous best opportunity, at which point the cost of this
denial is to have to cope with the next best alternative. "Oh no, the
sauce you poured on your cake contains almonds, but you're allergic to
almonds!" Well, now you must do without eating your cake; hopefully you
can find someone with whom to trade it.
Of course, it might not always be clear which opportunity is best.
You're offered to choose one of many desserts. The chocolate cake is
hard to get wrong, but most pastry chefs only do it so well; the crême
brûlée can be anything from overly sweet, creamy and gross to beyond
perfect with subtle fruit flavours; you know you'll love the passion
fruit mousse, but what about that delicious sounding novelty you've
never tried? Some of these opportunities may be pretty safe bets, while
some are definitely riskier ones, but with a potential higher payoff
(introducing you to new ingredients that you'll love in the future).