April 15, 2023 Reading Time: 6 minutes

If you are in a crowded airplane, flying in coach, is it okay to lean your seat back?  If you’re in the middle seat, should you just assume you get at least one armrest as your very own? And which one? Both? What if the schlub beside you won’t give up the space?

Suppose there is one reasonably large piece of cake remaining; I cut it into two pieces, and then politely offer to let you take your pick of the slices. What should I do? What should you do, given what I did?

There are no written rules that answer these questions, but we all have intuitions about the answers. To the extent that these intuitions are shared, and acted on, these cultural dictates are called “manners.” Someone with manners, it is said, never gives offense unintentionally. What that means is that (1) everyone has expectations, based on custom and experience, of the proper way to act, and (2) everyone who is polite acts in accordance with those expectations, so that no one takes offense at an unexpected action.

It has been pointed out that the ambiguity about the airline seat norms actually serve the airlines, because the property rights are not clearly specified and enforceable. That’s interesting, because it suggests an additional level, beyond informal rules that simply decree answers in particular situations, like a “common law precedents for social life” list. In any particular situation, it is likely that having “manners” as a starting point for the property rights assignment creates a Coasian bargaining situation, where negotiations and side payments might change the outcome so that both parties are better off.

There is a local Coasian bargaining solution where the people affected work out, sometimes silently, who cares more about leaning back or using the armrest. Josh Barro wrote one piece, and then a follow-up, making this point. One of my favorite Reddits (now deleted, it seems, but I kept a screenshot) had this discussion on the subject:

  • Person A: I would gladly pay so that the person in front of me cannot recline. Where is THAT fee?
  • Person B: Have you tried jamming a wedge between the seats? They sell things that do that. [That’s true, they do sell those, but they are not allowed on airplanes any more]
  • Person C: The guy in front of you paid for the privilege of leaning back, sorry.
  • Person D:  Now that’s an idea: let people bid against each other for space. Like “Hunger Games”!
  • Person E:  What they ought to do is put a limit on how far the person in front can lean back.

Well. It’s easiest to start with Person E, since in fact there is a limit on how far someone can lean back, and it’s not very far. Leaning back a little once the plane is in flight is one of the rights you purchase when you pay for a seat, like using the space under the seat in front of you for storage, or folding down your tray table for your drink and bag of 7 stale pretzels. Person B just wants to steal that right from you using a mechanical device.

Of course, the Coasian part of this takes one step back, and takes off from the premise that people may all value a certain right, but they value it differently. We could negotiate, of course, but I’ve flown millions of miles and I’ve only seen a payment for “don’t lean back” once.

There is a possible solution, of course, which the airlines themselves could impose. Have one or more rows of seats that do not recline at all, and charge less for them (exit row seats are like this, but those are already priced separately), then charge more for the row of seats behind the “no-recline” seats. The people who don’t value reclining much would choose the cheaper seats that don’t recline. The people who hate it when the person in front reclines would pay more for the seats behind those cheaper seats.

The point is that if it were possible to negotiate, at relatively low cost and without getting mad and throwing water, we might see some seats reclined and some not reclined, and that outcome might be optimal in every case, for that particular pair. (Full disclosure: I often recline a little bit in my seat, and it doesn’t bother me at all if the person in front of me reclines, because they paid for the privilege). The point is that the default is a weak presumption that the person in front can recline. If the recliner values reclining less than the person behind values face space, then a payment can solve the problem.

There are some situations, though, where no one knows who has the initial property right assignment. Under those circumstances, the negotiation is more free form, but the best outcome still depends on how much the parties involved value the alternatives. As always, any agreement on price requires a disagreement about value, meaning that if you value something more than I do, you can pay me to acquire the right, even if no one owns the right to begin with.

My good friend Russ Roberts, of Econtalk fame, recently sent me an example that is great for classroom discussions or arguments at lunch. The setting (the whole thing may have been staged, but that’s okay, because it’s still interesting) is a London park, about 9 am. A young woman—a “fitness influencer”—has just finished her morning 5k run, and is going over her wisdom to her followers via live streamed video.

And then things take an unexpected turn. Rather than describing it, I suggest you watch the thing. It’s less than three minutes wrong, though it’s cringeworthy enough to seem twice that long. Go ahead and watch; I’ll wait.

Now, some points:

  • The young lady was “there first,” creating some presumptive right of use of the space.
  •  The video, however, was set up to focus directly on a bench, beside a path, in a public park. The ability of a private individual to annex such spaces for exclusive use are very limited.
  • When the man sits down, he is not making noise or engaging with the camera in the classic “photobomb” move, but he is distracting because he is quite close to the influencer. It’s a bit creepy.
  • The young woman goes back to ask the man to leave the shot, and she is quite firm that since she asked “politely” then he must obey. Staged or not, this is a trope of younger people, that if a request is phrased politely the request becomes an obligation; there is no right to refuse.
  • The man (and yes, I know, the dude is basically James Harrigan, I get that) is also polite, but adamant, even obdurate, in his refusal to move. There are, he concedes, other benches, but then there are also other vistas in the park. He correctly invokes the Coasian insight that “externalities” are reciprocal: It is true that his sitting on his usual bench is ruining her video, but her choice to film her video in that location when many others are available is ruining his chance to sit on his usual bench, something he has a right to do.
  • When superficial politeness does not immediately carry the day, the young woman brings out her big gun: self-importance. She is an INFLUENCER, and this is a VIDEO, don’t you know, for her FOLLOWERS.  To say that the man is unimpressed is an understatement: “Followers? So are you Jesus, now? With followers?”
  • When this doesn’t work, and her clumsy final sally (her all-important—to her—followers “do not want to see you, I know,” because he is old) falls flat, she invokes the tac nuke of young people: “That’s not fair!”  When my sons were growing up, I called this “the F word” and asked them never to use it as an argument. Saying “that’s not fair!” usually simply means that you aren’t doing what I want you to do and I have run out of real arguments.

From a Coasian perspective, who should have moved? (Again, even if the whole thing was staged, that’s a viable hypothetical question). The value to the fitness influencer of having the video shot without the intruder was quite high; the value to the intruder of having his peaceful bench perch disturbed by the young woman talking into a camera was trivial, he didn’t mind at all. So clearly the best outcome is that the video be shot without the intruder.

The only remaining question is whether the influencer should move, or the influencer should pay the intruder to move. Moving the tripod, or redirecting it 90 degrees and finishing the video, is essentially costless (it’s London, so there is no sun to worry about for lighting concerns).

On the other hand, if the influencer had moved and the intruder had moved into the camera’s view again, that would have been rude. While the influencer cannot reasonably expect to claim all of the park for her use, she can certainly claim a small part for her temporary use, as long as it doesn’t preclude reasonable use by others of public assets. Like a park bench.

Michael Munger

Michael Munger

Michael Munger is a Professor of Political Science, Economics, and Public Policy at Duke University and Senior Fellow of the American Institute for Economic Research.

His degrees are from Davidson College, Washingon University in St. Louis, and Washington University.

Munger’s research interests include regulation, political institutions, and political economy.

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