A couple weekends ago I sat down with my laptop in a Panera where we live. I had a little bit of work to take care of, and Panera is my default choice to get stuff done. The wi-fi is free, the food is decent by casual dining/fast food standards, and you can get your tea or coffee in an actual mug rather than a paper cup (a rare treat). And the one I go to tends to have plenty of seats and never be overcrowded.
In any case, this particular visit got me thinking about something extremely important: fountain sodas. Usually when I visit places like this, I go for tap water instead of something sweet. I love soda and all, but for lunch I don’t really like paying the extra $2-3 for something I probably consume too much of anyway. At Panera, the way this works is that they give you an annoyingly small clear plastic cup that is completely different looking from the cup you get when you buy a fountain drink, and then allow you to fill this cup with water on your own at the fountain soda area.
I find that a lot of these casual chain do this now; that is, they give you a water-specific cup rather than one usually intended for a fountain drink. I suppose part of the reason is to encourage people to buy drinks rather than asking for free water with their meals, given that you can only fit what seems like 0.8 ounces of liquid inside one of those tiny cups.
But another reason, I guess, is the idea that having different-looking cups would make it harder for the soda free loader types, the ones who ask for a free cup only to fill it up with something they were supposed to have paid for, simply because it would be more obvious when someone’s dumping Cherry Coke into a cup that’s clearly intended for water. That seems to be the thought process at Chipotle, which gives the same size cup for water as it does for soda, but slaps an mistakable label on their water cups to make it perfectly clear what’s what.
The whole point of this is that there’s a clear element of trust involved here. Even with those simple deterrences in place to prevent people from stealing soda from fast food joints, it’s not like doing so is hard. We’re not talking Ocean’s Eleven here. In fact, at that particular Panera that I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the fountain drink area is way in the back, where no one at the front counter can see. Really, the only way to get busted is for some employee to pass by your table and spot you, and then of course to decide that, despite being exhausted and probably making just above minimum wage, it’s worth publicly shaming a customer into what cost the Panera shareholders about ten cents. In other words: not gonna happen.
But think to yourself: When was the last time you pulled off this sneaky trick, despite how easy it would be? I feel tempted every time I put that cup under that “water” lever. Only an inch away, I could be pressing a button to deliver sweet lemonade goodness instead of rusty tap water, and no one would have to know. And yet, as long as I can remember, I have never done this. And I can recall only once seeing someone else do it, for that matter. It sounds trivial, but the fact that the vast majority of us are trustworthy at the fountain soda station subtly illustrates something very important about our economy. Even given the chance to cheat and almost certainly get away with it, the vast majority of us tend to play by the rules. You can see this in many other places than your local fast food restaurant, of course. A notable example is tax evasion. For all our faults as a nation, we Americans tend to be honest on our taxes; the rate of tax evasion here in the US is among the lowest in the world, despite the fact that if you cheat on your taxes, you probably won’t get caught, and the punishment probably wouldn’t even be that severe if you did.
The fact that people are mostly honest makes the world a lot better to live in. That’s in part because it generally stinks to be lied to, and it feels draining and depressing to live in an environment that is dishonest and uncaring. But beyond that, the economy just saves a ton of money when people aren’t trying to cheat eachother. Panera, for instance, accepts that a certain number of people will cheat by asking for water cups and instead filling them with soda, but figures that the number is so small that there’s no need to spend the extra money on an additional employee or a new hidden camera system to watch out for soda thieves. The same thing happens with package delivery services. My wife recently ordered something online that was supposed to have been left outside our apartment building, but which she never received. When she called to complain, the retailer simply sent a new one, no questions asked. That retailer (together with the shipping company, I guess), had essentially calculated that because packages left outside people’s doors almost never get stolen, it would be cheaper just to leave them outside and pay the cost whenever they disappeared, rather than requiring a signature each time and slowing everything down. That doesn’t work in a world where people are running around scooping eachother’s boxes off their doorsteps.
What’s remarkable is that, by the standard of economic theory, it’s entirely rational for us to steal soda, snatch away packages, and cheat on their taxes much more frequently than we do. Once again, the chances of getting caught doing these things is relatively minuscule, and the punishment relatively light, compared to the benefit. And yet, by and large people just don’t do these things. In that sense, there’s a tremendous benefit from people behaving irrationally selfless and cooperative. Somewhat paradoxically, without that irrationality the entire free market system, built upon the “rational” and self-interested decisions of its various actors, can’t exist. The costs of enforcing compliance and cooperation — think of a soda gestapo hounding each and every Panera customer at the fountain machine — get so burdensome that the whole thing comes crashing down.
Numerous authors, especially economists and political scientists, have written about this, of course. But it’s remarkable to think about all the little ways we benefit from the fact that we all, more or less, trust each other and play by the rules. What’s also remarkable to think about is how much potentially better off we would be if there were even more of this irrational trust among us. What if even fewer water cup people stole soda, and all the many equivalents of this in everyday society? We’ve seen examples of societies where trust breaks down completely, usually in places torn apart by war, revolution, drought and the like, and the misery that this creates. What about the total opposite side of the spectrum? What type of sheer joy would it create for a society to be blessed with exceeding selflessness and good behavior?
You certainly don’t have to be religious to be law-abiding and selfless, of course. But I can think of no better promoter of “irrational” behavior than religious faith. We are unfortunately all too familiar with religion’s destructive forms of irrational behavior — think self-flagellation, terrorism, mass suicide, etc. But religion also causes people to do good irrational things, purely out or devotion and faith, that are constructive for society. Among many things, religious faith asks us to act with honesty and integrity, and never to steal and cheat. In other words, it keeps us from sneakily filling up our little plastic water cups at the fountain soda stand, even when there’s no one watching.
Along those lines, I’m reminded of an off-quoted passage from the Baha’i Writings, one which takes an almost shockingly extreme take on theft. It reads:
They who dwell within the tabernacle of God, and are established upon the seats of everlasting glory, will refuse, though they be dying of hunger, to stretch their hands and seize unlawfully the property of their neighbor, however vile and worthless he may be.
When I first came across this passage I found it somewhat surprising, given the Baha’i Faith’s fierce defense of the poor and desperate. It also dug up some of the confusion I felt as a kid at the story of Robin Hood. So, is it ok to steal or not?, I used to wonder.
Baha’u’llah’s answer to this Robin Hood conundrum is, judging from the passage above: No, stealing is never ok. The economic and social goals of the Faith — reducing inequality, uplifting the status of the poor, recognizing the dignity of all people — will have to be reached by honest means. I’d venture that this isn’t just about driving home the symbolic importance of sticking closely to principle — being good simply because it’s right. I think it also has something to do with Baha’u’llah’s recognition that when we all commit ourselves to honesty and fairness, our entire society benefits.
Something as trivial as soda may not seem like a big deal, but what it represents absolutely is. In a world where everyone defaults to cooperation and respecting the property of others, each of us is better off. Even if it means sipping water out of a tiny plastic cup.