Two towns sat on opposite sides of a river in the shadow of some mountains. The glaciers set into the mountains glistened in the morning sun.
For years, traffic had passed between the towns by way of small boats. But one day, a consortium of men built a low toll-bridge across the river. It soon absorbed all the traffic from the boats. The toll was expensive, but the bridge was safer than the boats, so people used it. Before long, a continuous stream of people crossed the bridge from one town to the other. The consortium of men became rich, the economies of both towns expanded, and everyone was happier as a result.
For a while it seemed the good life would go on forever. Then the glaciers began to melt. The river rose higher in its bed.
Empedocles was a citizen of one of the towns. When he heard that the glaciers were melting, he went to the consortium of men.
‘Look’, he said. ‘The glaciers are melting. Soon the river will rise above the toll-bridge and no one will be able to cross the river. What will happen to the markets then? We must phase out the bridge and build a new fleet of boats to ferry traffic across the river. This is our crisis today. We must rise up like the river to meet it!’
The rich men laughed at Empedocles.
‘Do you know how much it costs to build a fleet of boats?’ they said. ‘Where will all this money for this come from? From the taxpayer, of course! And who will want to live by the river when the taxes are so high? You talk about saving economies, Empedocles, but you don’t know the first thing about economics. We do. We shall stick with the toll-bridge and preserve the status quo. Who would believe that the river would rise above the bridge in any case?’
Undefeated, Empedocles went away and built a boat. Soon he’d launched a small business ferrying people back and forth across the river.
The sun shone and the glaciers melted and river rose higher in its bed. Before long, it was overflowing the bridge. More people were using Empedocles’s ferry service across the river, worried about losing stock in the water as they carted it across.
The rich men said to themselves: ‘Empedocles was right. The river is going to overflow the bridge. We must diversify our business in order to capture other markets. We must invest in boats, not bridges – the future is in boats!’
The rich men changed their thinking. They built a whole fleet of ferry boats. Empedocles’s small, reasonably priced and reliable ferry service could not compete with them. Soon the consortium had monopolized the ferry-boat system, and Empedocles was driven out of business.
Once again, the rich men laughed at him.
‘You changed to boats while we stayed with bridges’, they observed. ‘Thus we became richer while you struggled to open up this new market. It was only when we no longer saw money in bridges that we shifted to boats – and now your ferry-boat system has made us richer than ever. You should have followed our example, Empedocles. You should have invested in bridges while the waters rose’.
Empedocles smiled in return. ‘I have always invested in bridges’, he said. ‘While you were protecting your investments, I built a bridge to the future’.