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« Date certain | Main | A flip side: the asymmetrical gift »

Asymmetrical mass favors, a tragedy of our commons

If the farmer and the baker make a trade, both win. The farmer benefits from having someone turn his wheat into flour and bake it, and the baker gets money from the bread he sells that he can use to buy things he needs (like food).

This sample math of the transaction (Pareto, et. al.) created the world we live in. It also is connected to the idea of a favor.

A favor is the first half of a transaction. I ask you to do something for me today, something where I will probably benefit a lot in exchange for a small effort on your part. Inherent in the idea of a favor, though, is that one day soon, the transaction will be completed. One day, I will do something for you that gives you a benefit.

As Pareto and any economist will tell you, we willfully engage in this transaction because we'll benefit. Maybe not right now, but soon.

By spreading the idea of the trade over time, the favor makes trades more likely to occur, and also makes sure that they are even more efficient. If I’m already holding open the heavy door, holding it two more seconds for you is easy for me. And then, the next time you’re holding open the door, you’ll be more likely to hold it for me.

If I recommend you for a job, it doesn’t take much effort on my part, but you might get three years of gainful employment out of it. And of course, you’re happy to complete that transaction as soon as you can, because no one wants to walk around owing favors.

The efficiency caused by this sort of exchange is so extraordinary that we built it into the social contract. I’m not just selfish if I let the door slam as you walk toward the elevator--I’m rude. I’m risking becoming an outcast.

Favors are so ingrained that the next step was inevitable: Mass Symmetric Favors. Halloween is a great example: How else to explain a hundred million people buying half a billion Snickers bars? We give away the candy because it’s expected, and because people gave us candy when we were kids, and because people are giving our kids candy as well. To opt out is uncivilized.

School taxes create a similar obligation. If you don’t pay when you’re childless, there will be no one to pay when your kids are in school. (And you have to live in a world with uneducated people). And so the transactions are spread out over time, everyone giving and taking, not so much keeping score as knowing that a key part of civil society is to participate in these mass fungible favors.

But!

There’s a big but. The internet and other connecting tools now make it easy to create the asymmetrical mass favor--in which one person can ask a large number of people, some of them strangers, some friendlies, some friends--for an accommodation that may very well never be repaid.

The simple example is the person running for the Metro North commuter train that leaves at 5:20. She’s only 2 minutes late. If she misses it, she’s delayed half an hour. Surely the people on the train can wait a hundred and twenty seconds.

Not really. Not if there are 300 people on the train. That’s a ten hour penalty on the passengers, and if there’s no reasonable expectation of each of them somehow finishing the transaction one day in the future, the entire system will fall apart. No, in the abstract, we WANT the conductor to say ‘sorry.’

It gets far more dramatic when we think about spamming 10,000 or a hundred thousand people with your resume or plea for help.

The problem is that under the cover of the social contract, under the guise of doing what’s civilized, what some people are doing is beginning exchanges that they and those they engage with know will never be consummated. She's not transacting, she's taking.

And people resent her for it. “It can’t hurt to ask,” is almost never true, but here, especially, it hurts a lot. What the person looking for the favor is doing is actually undoing the tacit agreement we all live by, by seeking a favor when the recipient has no real (social) choice in the matter.

The favor is too important to be discarded, but the internet is making things that look like favors (but are actually asymmetrical takings) more and more common. It's putting pressure on people who are usually open to a favor to do the difficult thing and just say no.

[Tomorrow: the other side]

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