26 August 2010

Courtesy as a convenient way of encapsulating economic rationality

The specific consequence is what you should do if someone cuts in front of you in a line: (a) ignore them, (b) say "I think you might not have noticed that the line starts back there" or (c) say "you asshat, get in line!"
Ideas | David D Friedman | Economics of Language and Courtesy

My objective is to get him to go back to the end of the line, getting me through a little faster, and to do it with a minimum of unpleasantness. By treating his act as a mistake I lower the cost to him of doing what I want, since doing so does not require him to implicitly confess a deliberate violation of local norms. Lowering the cost to him of doing what I want makes him more likely to do it. What my friend regarded as behavior due to courtesy appears to me as a simple application of economics.

One can carry the argument one step further. If, instead of offering the norm violator an easy out, I loudly upbraid him, he will be less likely to quietly concede his error . But, since I will have raised the cost to him of cutting into line, he may be less likely to do it again. If my objective were the general good rather than my own private good, that might be the sensible choice, deterring future offenses against other people at some cost in current unpleasantness. In my friend’s view, the reason to be courteous was the benevolent desire to maintain social harmony. But courtesy, at least in this case, causes me to sacrifice the general good for my private good—precisely the behavior that economics predicts.
I need to share this one with Special Lady Friend. I'm more of an option (c) kind of guy. Not always, but I tend to (c) more than the average person. SLF, being a kind and gentle gal, is more of an option (b) sort. Now I can explain to her that yelling at the chump that cuts me off isn't an angry thing to do; it's quite the opposite. I'm actually being selfless by discouraging selfish behavior in others in the future.

I'm confident she'll be convinced by this argument immediately.

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