David R. Henderson  

Fun With Ralph Nader

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Yesterday, I was at an all-day meeting of "left and right" in Washington to see if we could put together a coalition against the various wars that the U.S. is in but not in. (War has not been declared since December 8, 1941.) There were about 30 people or so at the meeting. I came out encouraged, but those who know me know that I tend to find green shoots all over the place. For the noon and afternoon part of the meeting, Ralph Nader was there. I had interviewed him (really, argued with him) for about an hour and a half 20 years ago, but had never met him. I reminded him that I had interviewed him on the phone for a piece I had done in Barron's where I went after him about the CAFE laws. I quote some highlights from that interview in my book, The Joy of Freedom: An Economist's Odyssey.

One thing that I highlighted in my Barron's piece that the editor, the late Robert Bleiberg, edited out, was Ralph's sense of humor. I saw it again on display yesterday. Later this week, I'll deal with one of the serious issues we tangled on yesterday--campaign finance laws--but I have a plane to catch and so I want simply to highlight a fun interaction.

Ralph had brought along copies of his latest book for sale for $27.50. Earlier, in his lunch talk, he had said that we don't really have freedom of contract because corporations give us boilerplate contracts that don't allow us to change the terms. It's take it or leave it. I wanted an autographed copy but I didn't want to pay $27.50. So I went up to him while he was autographing and put my arm around him and said, "You know how you think we should be able to negotiate and you don't like take or it leave it deals." I held out a $20 bill and said, "I'll give you $20." He grinned and knew he was trapped. "How about $22?," he said. "Deal," I said. I opened my wallet and didn't have two ones and his aide noticed a $5 in there and said, "What about $25?" "No," I said. "But you have $25," said his aide. "Right," I said, "and $25 is not $22." Ralph pulled out three ones and we finished the transaction.

Maybe it's that I've lived in California too long but I've become a hugger. Earlier, before his talk, when he and I had spoken at some length, I asked him for a hug. He obliged.


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CATEGORIES: Business Economics



COMMENTS (11 to date)
Eric H writes:

That is a funny story.

I'll never forget the elation I felt when I realized I could bargain with the car repair center on the price of a brake job. It was a regional chain, and somehow I got the idea that I was stuck with the quoted price. On a lark I offered $200 less. "Deal," was the reply.

Why do people "feel" trapped like I used to? Is Nader's promulgation of the idea of being locked into a boilerplate contract part of the cause, or the effect, of such feelings? Maybe a little of both.

By the way, I've always been a hugger, but I spent a good portion of my childhood and adolescence in a place known as "The People's Republic of Wisconsin!" Correlation or causation? :)

Matt C writes:

The hugging is kinda weird, but the thing that is interesting to me is that you *wanted* to hug him at all.

My reaction to meeting Ralph Nader in person would be wary civility. I could shake his hand for politeness but I'd probably want to wash it after.

Where do these affectionate feelings toward the opposition come from? I have the sense it's pretty common with libertarian economists (not all of them, certainly). Is it an academia thing? A natural extension of "to each his own"? If you've got ideas, might be worth a blog post someday.

Tom Lee writes:

Do hard bargaining and basic human affection go together? Yes! David shows the way here.

SydB writes:

Great story. Love it.

johnleemk writes:

Matt C, even though I strongly disagree with Nader at times, I highly respect his principles and that he isn't afraid to follow them where they may lead, even if it's to a position which might be inconsistent with the stereotype of the overly aggressive left liberal. He was a major proponent of deregulation in the 70s, and at times shared a platform with Reagan in denouncing government regulation as an encouragement of corporate rent-seeking.

One thing I like about Nader and thinkers like him (I won't say Naderites, because a lot of people on these bandwagons haven't seemed to think a lot about the implications of their philosophy) is that they're a living reminder of the big tent of liberalism -- and I mean liberalism in the classical, 19th century sense. Nader consciously and explicitly cites the libertarian/classical liberal Henry George as a major influence, and although George would likely not be recognised as a liberal/libertarian today by the American adherents of Austrianism, it's worth remembering that many "leftist" or "socialist" ideas properly have little to do with Marx, and a lot more to do with liberal thinkers of the 19th century. American libertarianism is one descendant strain of liberalism, but there are many other kinds of thought, including Naderism, which share this descent.

RL writes:

I'm sure Nader is also a fan of Lemon Laws, requiring car dealerships to accept cars back for a full refund, no questions asked, within a certain time-frame.

You can find out how principled he is by taking his book back to him and demanding your $22... :-)

Patrick R. Sullivan writes:
[Nader] had said that we don't really have freedom of contract because corporations give us boilerplate contracts that don't allow us to change the terms. It's take it or leave it.

He's almost certainly wrong about that. Boilerplate contracts are amended all the time. All you need to do is attach an addendum to the proffered contract spelling out the exceptions you expect if they want you to sign it.

Anyway, Stan Liebowitz has a good explanation in his Re-Thinking the Network Economy of why haggling largely went the way of the dinosaurs; it's economically inefficient for all but a few products.

FC writes:

So do you agree with Nader that Congress is subservient to Israel?

David R. Henderson writes:

@FC,
So do you agree with Nader that Congress is subservient to Israel?

I don't know the context he said this in and I don't know the extent of his charge, but I do think that Congress often puts the interests of Israel well above those of most Americans, just as it puts the interest of farmers--and steel producers, and seniors, and, and, and--well above those of most Americans. A little public choice is useful here.

Matt C writes:

johnleemk, perhaps Nader is not as bad as I think. I know I've read quotes from him that sounded pretty awful (none at hand, sorry), and I've assumed him to be one of the "bad" elite who despise ordinary people and all the choices they'd make for themselves if they were allowed. If he ever advocated for deregulation or was willing to share a message with Reagan, there is more to the guy than I realized.

johnleemk writes:

Oh, Nader's a complicated character. I see him as the left's Ron Paul -- someone who's a little too out there to be a serious policymaker, but who can be the conscience on the fringes of his own partisan wing.

I definitely remember reading about Nader and Reagan jointly denouncing regulation in the 70s, but finding this online is proving to be harder than I thought. No need to look very far for his general deregulation credentials, though -- he, Ted Kennedy and Carter fought unions and other interest groups to push deregulation of trucking through: http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc1/TruckingDeregulation.html

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