Saturday, April 09, 2011

Anonymous Exchange

Human progress depends on specialization, which in turn requires successful cooperation, often among people far away and unknown to each other, referred to by the economist John Nye and others as anonymous exchange.

This is difficult for many non-Westerners to understand or appreciate. Trust an unknown stranger? in the same way you trust anyone else?  But modern, large societies do it all the time, from accepting green pieces of paper (dollars) as payment for a service, to taking as fact the words in a newspaper column telling us who won the election. Okay, sometimes we don’t completely trust others, but the violations are in the breach, and we feel wronged when the trust is broken.

In China I once needed a taxi from one airport terminal to another. I was in a hurry, didn’t know my directions, and a taxi was there so I hopped in.  The driver suspiciously didn’t turn on the meter, a fact which I interpreted as kindness toward a stranger, until we arrived and he insisted that I pay far, far more than the adequate fare.

Why did he rip me off?  Because he assumed I was leaving the country, would never return, and was to him completely and totally anonymous. If I had been a relative, or a friend of a relative, or a member of a community that he respects or thinks of as related to his, then I'm sure he would have treated me very differently.

We hear about this in China all the time, from businessmen who cheat on their foreign partners, to a trusted Ayi (maid) who steals from her employer. Of course such fraud happens in any society, but I think China particularly sees this through the eyes of a not-quite-ended feudalism, an underdeveloped place where you naturally trust only those to whom you have a family or other strong kinship.