I think like many people, I read The Ethicist without ever finding it worthwhile. It’s just there, in the New York Times Magazine, and it’s always short, and before you know it you’ve wasted 30 seconds of your life reading sanctimonious, corny answers to clueless, self-serving questions. Last week’s column was no exception.
The first letter asked if it was OK to shoplift Jewish artifacts which may have been looted during World War II. I can’t imagine why anybody would find that OK, unless they were operating on the Guy Ritchie theory of morality, and The Ethicist, mincing his words very fine, tells him that it is, indeed, Not OK to steal.
But the next question is more intriguing. Sure, it’s stupid: “Can I tip less than the socially accepted amount if [lame rationalization].” And sure, the answer is no. But it really shines a light onto the troubles people have with tipping. You see this everywhere. Everyone seems to hate the tips. “That’s not how they do it in Europe” is a common assertion, and in some circles a first-round KO. The Ethicist himself chimes in with, “I would prefer that servers were paid a living wage, making them immune to the whims of penny pinchers like you and me…” as a half-baked (but extremely prevalent) argument against the tip system. But I just don’t get it.
Yes, waiters are paid less than the minimum wage in most cases. Yes, they’re expected to make up the shortfall in their wages through tips (which they typically do). This is unusual, and certainly not how accountants, or doctors, or newspaper columnists are paid. And obviously waiters hate it when customers tip inadequately. But the claim that waiters are materially affected by a few stingy customers is statistically inane. The law of large numbers tells us that over a sufficiently long time frame, the tips earned by a waiter will even out, irrespective of whether any particular customer is a bad tipper. A waiter’s take-home pay isn’t quite as predictable as an accountant’s — but over time, it regresses to the mean.
The usual solution to the tipping problem is to add a non-negotiable “service charge” onto the bill, and have the restaurant owners pay the waiters a flat wage. (Given that America is, in spite of everything, a tipping culture, plan B is to whine about American culture.) As someone who has worked for tips, I can only smile at those who believe restaurauteurs (!) are more honest and generous than the average diner.
But mostly, I’m annoyed by the mindset that thinks of tipping as a problem to be solved. I like tips. I like giving tips, and when I was a delivery boy, I liked getting tips. It lets the tipper feel gracious, and lets the server feel grateful. It’s old-fashioned, idiosyncratic and charming. It’s a mode of exchange that’s a welcome relief from “here-is-the-product-give-me-$X”, the same script we follow when buying everything else, from cigarettes to cars. It’s like gift-giving, another mode of exchange that advice columnists have a hard time explaining. “You mean I have to buy somebody a wedding present just because it’s the socially accepted thing to do? What’s in it for me? How did this custom get started, and how can I stop it?” It’s no surprise that libertarians are usually in the anti-tipping vanguard. I just don’t know why anybody else is behind them.