Sitting at the airport bar, I was speaking lazily to the person next to me. I was feeling hungry but not willing to pay high airport prices for food. Plus I just wanted a small snack — such as that yummy-looking chicken stick on the plate in front of my new friend. The bar patron wasn’t touching it. I nearly asked if I could eat but thought again: that would be sort of tacky.
Seems like we should pay for our own food. Right? Maybe.
Suddenly he said he was late for a flight, paid his tab, and left the bar chair in a hurry. I’m sitting there next to this abandoned chicken stick. It was eight inches from my hand. I could have reached out and eaten it in less than five seconds. No one would have seen me, probably.
Something stopped me. I had to think about property rights, ownership, Lockean principles, a world with chaotic ownership claims, which led me to consider exactly who owned this chicken or whether perhaps it was like the Wild West, property waiting to be homesteaded.
Ask the Crowd
What would you do? I went to Twitter to find out. The famed free-market journalist John Stossel was very quick with an answer: “I would eat it.” That’s decisive!
Casey Head said: “Not morally wrong, but possibly a little gross.” But it didn’t look gross at all. It had never been touched.
Mike Karst said: “Just social pressure. Take it.” Maybe that’s right.
Tray Strawn said: “Mark Twain’s character in the ‘Million Pound Banknote’ waited to grab a half-eaten pear on the street until no one was looking. But someone else nabbed it. Moral: take it. Now!”
Indeed! The street orphans of the late Victorian period lived off the trash of others. This wasn’t disgusting. It was glorious. What a remarkable moment in history when there was enough left over from the abundance of production to feed vast amounts of people who make no money and produce no food at all. We take this for granted now, but this was actually evidence of a very high state of humanity.
Others began to speculate about the issue that had initially struck me: ownership. The bar patron paid for it but then abandoned it. Is it now up for grabs? What if the guy found out that his plane was delayed and came back to find I had eaten his chicken. Could he then demand a payment from me, as the victim of a tort?
If the chicken really is abandoned by the owner, perhaps the rights then revert to the bar itself. In that case, I would have to ask permission from the bartender. I wonder what he would say? Whatever he says, I would have to comply — provided that this is correct.
Another colleague suggested it would be wrong to take the chicken from a stranger’s plate but that if I had temporarily become casual friends, that makes matters entirely different. In this case, I would be perfectly justified in picking it up and eating it. It’s hard to know what kind of theory of property rights that view rests on. The friendship/communication theory of shared ownership rights?
In the back of my mind was Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. He addressed these cases in which it seems right to do wrong:
“The situations which call forth the noblest exertions of self-command, by imposing the necessity of violating sometimes the property, and sometimes the life of our neighbour, always tend to diminish, and too often to extinguish altogether, that sacred regard to both, which is the foundation of justice and humanity.”
I absolutely do not want to extinguish property, life, justice, or humanity. But it’s hard to see why reaching over eight inches and munching a chicken stick would do that.
In the Trash
As I was thinking through all these considerations, a server swept in, picked up the plate, and vanished into the kitchen, probably throwing the chicken straight into the trash. Talk about waste. And why? All because I had some strange scrupulosity, emanating from I do not know where, that prevented me from choosing the far more efficient solution. I went for morals (or manners? Or social convention?) over efficiency.
As it turns out, this is the fate of vast amounts of perfectly good food. As much as a third of all food produced ends up in the trash, according to a new study: “30% of daily calories available for consumption, one-quarter of daily food (by weight) available for consumption, and 7% of annual cropland acreage.”
It’s one thing if this is all done voluntarily. But it is not. Vast waste is imposed by government regulations. A friend was recently trying to get grocery store bakeries to donate food for a social hour following a church service. She constantly ran into the same reason that it is not possible: regulations prohibit stores from allowing people to consume food after it cannot be sold.
Well, it’s not technically prohibited. It’s just that five guidelines from the federal government, plus countless and endless restrictions at the state and local levels, make it extremely difficult for stores to set up formal programs with nonprofits such as churches to do what otherwise seems perfectly reasonable: be generous with the leftovers.
What an amazing bounty surrounds us, so much so that we regulate its consumption to the point that we allow massive quantities to be thrown away, and then complain that there is too much trash.
Reflecting on our abundance, I feel a sense of deep gratitude for what capitalism has achieved. For more than 150,000 years, the daily plight of all of humanity was struggling to get food for today and tomorrow, and maybe even figuring out some way to prepare for the future. That defined the whole of life.
Birth of Plenty
Today? Our main problem is that we have too much. For example: at lunch today, I had access to piles of barbecued spiced sausage, roasted peppers, coleslaw, and bread. The great moral discipline I faced was not to eat too much. My goodness, what a luxury! I get why the 18th-century nobility had their visages painted to make them look as fat as possible: only the rich in those days could get fat. If you’ve got it, flaunt it. Today, it is the opposite: only the very rich can be beautifully thin.
None of it would have happened without the invention of the great technology that enabled us to stop stealing from each other and instead start to create wealth. That technology is the enforcement of private property norms over scarce goods. Such a technology does not create perfect rules applicable in all times and all places, much less provide us a perfect ethical template for all human interaction with the material world. Instead it creates a norm that rules out such silliness as socialism, which fantasizes about the impossible idea of collective ownership of scarce goods.
Ambiguities will also be with us. Can you sample from the olive bar? Can you stand at the magazine rack for an hour and read? Can you stay in the theater and watch a second film? Can you take the extra soap and shampoo from the hotel room? Some of these questions are governed by contract, some by cultural norms, and some solutions are left ambiguous for a reason.
Back to the chicken. I could have eaten it without violating anyone’s rights, so far as I can tell. But doing so would bump into an idea that forms the basis of social order, the very distinction between what is mine and what is thine. And keep in mind that this norm thrives most (or only) in an environment in which we are not desperate. In famine and war, such norms become more flexible. Sitting at the airport bar, I had the luxury to be scrupulous … and remain hungry, awaiting my chance to beg the flight attendant to give me an extra bag of salted almonds.
Let me ask you again: would you eat the chicken stick?