Take a Tip from Me

November 7, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

There’s a new blogger on the block - Brooke Harrington at Economic Sociology. Most recently, she wonders why tip jars don’t get stolen more often. The tip jar is an easy target, often unwatched. Brooke sees the survival of tip jars as evidence of trust.

Yes, but there are also laws against stealing, even when you can probably get away with it.

Economists are puzzled by seemingly irrational behavior, especially when it doesn’t violate the law – like standing in line to vote when it’s almost certain that your vote won’t affect the outcome of the election. Even worse is irrationality that’s explicitly economic. When a person or organization fails to maximize its gain, say charging less than what the market would bear, economists refer to it as “leaving money on the table.”

That’s also a pretty accurate description of tipping, which is another puzzle to economists. But here’s a puzzle for lawyers or ethicists: If you sit down at a restaurant table that still hasn’t been cleared and you pocket the tip someone left, that’s stealing. But what about this: you take half the money, and when you finish your meal, you add it to the tip you leave. The server comes out no worse, but the previous diner looks like a piker, and you look like a very generous tipper.

My father claimed that this hypothetical was a question on an exam when he was a law student.

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