Art Carden  

You Can Always Depend on the Self-Interest of Strangers: Hotels Edition

PRINT
60 Minutes Highlights... Why Not Protect Workers from C...

"We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders."-G.K. Chesteron

I'm sitting at a Starbucks in Houston, Texas, where we're visiting my sister, her husband, and my newborn niece. It's been a good trip, albeit with one complication: my sons were sick for the first two days of our visit, so we were hesitant to have them around a newborn while they recovered from respiratory issues. What to do?

Amazingly, people have organized themselves into associations and organizations that help us solve exactly the problem we faced. Groups of local strangers--people we'd never met before and who we may never see again--were kind enough to shelter us and feed us a sumptuous breakfast. We were protected from the elements (and comfortably) and fed (and well).

What inspired them to such benevolent offices? Were they aware of our plight, minor though it may seem? Did they wait in anticipation of skittish travelers who didn't want their potentially-contagious kids around a newborn, all the while thinking of nothing but my niece's welfare?

Of course not. They were all too willing to feed and shelter us, and perhaps indulge just a bit of irrational fear about spreading infection to a baby, in exchange for the fruit of but a few hours' labor denominated in money.

Ever since attending a Liberty Fund conference on Hayek about two months ago, I've been thinking about Hayek's insights about markets. Too often, we lose sight of just how incredible this is: strangers who don't know one another's preferences, goals, fears, or dreams, are able to cooperate to mutual advantage through voluntary trade. As Hayek notes, the "Great Society" or "catallaxy" doesn't have its own consciously-chosen goal. Rather, it allows free and responsible people to pursue their own individually-chosen goals. The desk clerk at the hotel, for example, might know nothing of my goals or interests. I knew nothing of hers, and yet she is willing to advance my goals (in this case, spending time with family while keeping sick kids at a safe distance from the baby) if I'm willing to advance hers. General prosperity is the unintended consequence insofar as trades are voluntary.

A wonder? Absolutely, and worthy of wonder.

NB: The Chesteron quote also appears at in "I, Pencil." The Competitive Enterprise Institute made a series of videos based on I, Pencil" that you can watch here. I was compensated for appearing in them but not for mentioning them in this post. Here's an article I wrote a few years ago with the same title.


Comments and Sharing


CATEGORIES: Microeconomics



COMMENTS (15 to date)
liberty writes:

I'm sitting in a living room in London, visiting my mother. It's been a good trip, albeit with one complication: my mother is ill with a chronic and degenerative disease, which makes it impossible for her to care for herself. What to do?

Amazingly, people have organized themselves into associations and organizations that help us solve exactly the problem we face. Groups of local strangers--people we'd never met before and who we may never see again--were kind enough to shelter my mother, provide her 24 hour care, medical equipment, prescription drugs, doctor and dental visits, transport, activities and classes designed for the disabled, and much more... She is protected from the elements (and comfortably) and fed (and well) and cared for (and comprehensively).

What inspired them to such benevolent offices? Were they aware of her plight, major though it may seem? Were they thinking of nothing but my mother's welfare?

Of course -- the reason for providing all this to my mother is indeed because the voters, civil servants, politicians, and society in general does care about my mother's needs. Of course, many of those who offer her services throughout the day, from the bus driver (who knows nothing of her) to the wheelchair manufacturer (who may know of her) to the doctor (who certainly does), is also thinking of his/her own self-interest and would not do it for free. But most of those involved do care about her needs, and this improves their ability to serve her well.

They are all too willing to feed and shelter her, and perhaps indulge just a bit of excess comfort, without asking her in exchange for the fruit of a few hours' labor, denominated in money, which she is incapable of providing.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

strangers who don't know one another's preferences, goals, fears, or dreams, are able to cooperate to mutual advantage through voluntary trade

Living in a society already implies having a certain bond that used to be called civic friendship.

You fail to realize the virtues of an already existing functioning society and speak as if perfect strangers with entirely unknown preferences, goals, fears, or dreams, have built up a society through a commercial transaction. But it is a seriously incomplete account. They are your fellow-countrymen and you could assume a great deal about them. You are not among the Pygmies or the Nicobarese.

I recommend Kipling's poem-Stranger.

Glen S. McGhee writes:

I have to repeat what Bedarz says:

"Living in a society already implies having a certain bond that used to be called civic friendship.

You fail to realize the virtues of an already existing functioning society and speak as if perfect strangers with entirely unknown preferences, goals, fears, or dreams, have built up a society through a commercial transaction. But it is a seriously incomplete account. They are your fellow-countrymen and you could assume a great deal about them. You are not among the Pygmies or the Nicobarese. [who?]"

Typically, collective frames of reference for markets are ethnic, religious, or (as in the cases just cited) status group (i.e., those that accept and pay using credit cards). Also, language.

I actually winced when mention was made of "goals" -- the weak link here, because "goals" (as with other so-called "motives") is always a post hoc construction, never directly accessed, never manifest. Just a social construction. That's all.

There are so many invisible ties left out, you end up making markets into a miracle. In a word, Art's account is under-socialized, under-institutionalized.

Tracy W writes:

Ilaci - I've received similar care when travelling in foreign countries, including Vietnam. And it seems unwarranted to assume that just because Carden doesn't mention the virtues of an already existing society that he's ignorant of them, you don't mention the virtues of good nutrition, does that imply you're ignorant of them?

And what are you doing calling anything *just* a social construction? Social constructions can motivate people to die for them (eg people have died for their country, for their king, etc), there's nothing *just* about them.

Tracy W writes:

Liberty: how much is caring about your mother's needs, and how much is just self-motivated interest in a health insurance scheme run by the government? How many Brits support providing free medical care to non-British citizens?

Tracy W writes:

My apologies, it was McGhee who commented on social constructions.

liberty writes:

Tracey W -

"how much is caring about your mother's needs, and how much is just self-motivated interest in a health insurance scheme run by the government?"

Part of it is the former (caring about my mother) - I know because I have met a bunch of them, and caring about her is critical for some, especially her carers, but many others do seem to genuinely care - and part is the latter, as I said above, but this is also my point because the single-payer national health service is not market-based and so falls outside the market system which is being touted here...

"How many Brits support providing free medical care to non-British citizens?"

A large majority, which is why it has always been offered to non-citizens and this never even been close to changing.

Glen S. McGhee writes:

Tracy said, " ... just because Carden doesn't mention the virtues of an already existing society that he's ignorant of them"

Right, but in my opinion the lack of social perspective consistently undermines Carden's work. This is an on-going problem.

Maybe, some of Douglass North's institutional perspective is needed.

Yes, social constructions define reality for us (this is at the core of institutionalization), and they have real consequences, BUT let's stop with the post hoc armchair guessing game about "goals" someone "had". You only end up reading your ideological approach onto what has happened -- including what James E. Bloch calls the "liberal self".

Tracy W writes:

Liberty: sorry I should have said "nonresident", not non-citizen. The NHS does charge nonresidents for most services unless there's a reciprocity agreement (as within Europe) see http://www.adviceguide.org.uk/england/healthcare_e/healthcare_help_with_health_costs_e/nhs_charges_for_people_from_abroad.htm). If it was just caring, I'd expect rather more effort to go into high-value things like basic vaccines for poor people in developing countries.

It's probably worth adding here that I'm a British citizen and resident and a NZ citizen, not an American. The NZ government is no more keen to pay for medical tourists than the British one.

Tracy W writes:

McGhee - so how would Carden's point here be better if he had explicitly considered a social perspective? I don't see any fault in his logic here. Personally I think Carden does an excellent job of considering social perspective, though I am open to the possibility that I might be wrong.

And I'm surprised you're telling either me or Carden to stop with the guessing games about "goals" someone "had". (I'm not sure which one of us you're aiming at specifically). Carden explicitly says he knows nothing of the goals of the hotel receptionist as an example. As for my comments that people have been willing to die for social constructions, if I am wrong, how do you explain the vast numbers of men who voluntarily enlisted and often died in WWI and WWII? Are you claiming that armies, nations, and concepts like the British Empire are not social constructs? (I'd love to have a good debate with someone over what social constructs are).

And why have you put scare quotes around the words goals and had?

You have been very eager to give advice about how others should argue, I hope that out of a sense of reciprocity you will adopt my advice that your comments would be much better if you were much more specific. At the moment it sounds to me like you disagree with the conclusion but can't find any actual faults in the argument so you're just flinging mud at random.

liberty writes:

Tracy W -

I live in the UK but am an American citizen (married to a British citizen and in process of becoming one). When I was here as a visitor I got free or very cheap medical care to treat allergies and asthma, including prescription for inhalers etc, along with gyn exam. Also emergency care (including for renal failure, etc) is all free, as your link explains. In short, there is a lot covered for non-residents and non-citizens.

But this is all sort of beside the point. It is impractical to offer complete care for all who visit the country, but this does not mean that people do not care or want to offer it -- it would simply be impossible to do so.

But my point was that just as you can give an example of someone whose needs were met by self-interest and markets, you can also find examples of people whose needs were met by caring and generosity and non-market provision.

Tracy W writes:

Liberty: I'm really surprised you got free medical care for allergies and asthma as my mum was over and wanted a refill on some medicines and paid for those. (BTW, as someone who went through the citizenship process and has a number of friends and acquaintances who are doing so, two things, firstly good luck with the test if you haven't done it yet, secondly, I think it's a very good thing to pay a bit more to avoid sending your passport in, just in case something happens to make you want to head back to the US urgently, though of course that depends on the other pressures on your budget. )

On the issue of non-market provision, there's an awful lot of markets involved. These people are still being paid to do their jobs.
And they're hired through labour markets - people are free not to work for the NHS. Furthermore, NHS capital comes from markets: from the concrete and steel and labour needed to build hospitals and doctor's surgeries, to medical devices and drugs.

Finally, I know quite a few people who work in health care policy in NZ, and from them I know that the reason they're trying to get some more elements of markets into the NHS and the NZ healthcare system is because of the rising cost pressures and lack of other ideas for keeping costs down while maintaining quality.

liberty writes:

Tracy W -

I said "free or very cheap" -- IIRC I saw the doctors free but paid 14 quid maybe for the prescriptions in total, which included 4 inhalers (2 each of two types). I did this all at an NHS clinic around the corner from my flat, all same day walk-in appointment.

Yes, there are markets involved, but it is very clearly a single-payer system, scary socialized medicine (the same one that provides all that wealth of stuff to my mum), very much *not* what it seemed to me that Art Carden was praising--free markets, the catallaxy with all voluntary trades, etc...

Tracy W writes:

Liberty: I agree that looking at the trends in NZ or UK government spending on health is scary. One can already see the pressures of rising healthcare spending on other government spending, for example the LibDems in the UK current government coalition agreeing to rises in student fees at university, and the last Labour government in NZ failing to reverse student fees there despite serious political pressure on them to do so.
Productivity in health care in both NZ and the UK public systems is estimated to have been negative. See for example the references in this NZ Treasury document.
The idea of many Americans that single payer systems are a simple solution strikes me as ignorant. I'm even skeptical that single payer could bring down levels of American healthcare systems towards OECD averages, the US governmental system does not have a good track record of standing up to special interest lobbying.

Tracy W writes:

BTW, I do not mean to imply that single payer is particularly bad either by comparison with the alternatives. The WHO makes a decent case that no single funding system internationally stands out as the single right one. Just given my citizenships, I'm more emotionally involved about NZ and UK healthcare spending - that's where my tax money is going.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top