David Gordon and the Cash Register Thought Experiment

In ‘What Is Morality? The Ethics of Hazlitt' (1 June 2012), David Gordon says:

"Suppose, you see an opportunity to steal. Let’s say, you’re in a store and you see the cash register is open and the store owner has just gone to the back, and you can just take the money out.. You have good reasons to think he won’t be able to catch you. So you might say: ‘Well, isn’t this in your immediate interest that you’d be able to get all this money? ..and nobody’s going to catch you.’

But for Hazlitt, it isn’t into your long run interest, because in order for the market.. social cooperation to function, people really have to follow these rules on a fixed basis. They have to have these rules internalized, taught to us, so that we don’t violate them, whenever we think we could get away with it. If we did that then social cooperation would break down.

So it’s in everybody’s interest that we always follow these fixed rules, even though you might think that maybe there are some cases we can get away with it. It isn’t in our interest to just calculate in each case whether you can get away with breaking the rules. What’s in our long-run interest is that we always follow the rules.

Now you might say: ‘Well, aren’t there occasions.. exceptions like famous cases that Kant discusses?’ There’s a murderer knocking on the door and he asks if a certain person he’s trying to murder is in the house, so do you have to answer yes if the person is there; do you have to tell the truth to a murderer? Most people say ‘No, you don’t’. It is an exception to the rule that you’re not supposed to lie. … So you might say: ‘Well, aren’t there some kind of exceptions to these rules?’ But Hazlitt says: maybe there are, but these too can be specified as rules.”  [34m15s to 37m15s]

I understand Gordon’s take to mean the following:

Overall, the existence of social cooperation serves our individual interests; it is a means to our ends. However, if analyzed in individual scenarios, we would (with regularity) come up with a different answer, as to whether we anticipate social cooperation to serve our ends. And so, the rational anticipation of means versus ends at the individual level leads to (some or total) disintegration of society, even if these individuals are convinced of Austrian economics. To resolve this, we must act to raise the valuation of social cooperation from a means to an end in itself, in ourselves and in others.

Hans Hoppe and Stefan Molyneux have argued the same point (see here and here): that Austrian egoism leads away from social cooperation.

I’d like to offer a more precise analysis:

If one is convinced of Austrian economics (and prefers health to sickness, abundance to poverty, etc, over the medium to long run), then it is always perceived to be preferential that other people interact through the division of labor and private property. One exception could be for a partner in crime. It is this question of crime for oneself that I now first wish to discuss.

In a market society, where most people are in favor of social cooperation for others, this culminates in an environment where each individual is highly incentivized to act peacefully.

a.             b. 

Not only are individuals incentivized to refrain from crime, but they stand to gain from acting in those ways (and give off signals) that show social behavior.

Returning to the cash register hypothetical, we are looking at a person with a reputation, that was built up through many years. This person most likely also has a career and prospects for the future. If he does not have an income through production and trade, then he may be relying on friends and family or other institutions who are investing in him. And after this event he has many thousands of purchases (trades) he wishes to make in the future. If he were to take an amount of money, all of this would be put in jeopardy. How much money gained now, that one may or may not get away with stealing, is it worth risking ruining one’s entire future?

Another element in this scenario is that the more money is taken, the higher the risk of being found out. This is because a big amount missing may be spot upon the owner returning, and he can run outside to ask other people about who was in his store. This further lowers the potential gain by stealing.

Gordon stated in his hypothetical that the person knew he wouldn’t be found out, but is that how reality works? How do you know there is no hidden camera? How do you know when the owner returns? How do you know nobody else will walk in? How do you know nobody will recognize you as you walk out? We do not know the future, and have to constantly speculate on it.

People in society are also aware of the possibility of being harmed, and they take action on it if they perceive it’s a real risk. This is one of the functions of the immediate social group of friends and family, which are held intact if those relationships are perceived to be beneficial. People don’t just lend money to strangers, and they don’t tend to leave cash registers open and unmonitored for long amounts of time.

Another aspect is psychic loss and gain: if I am able to thrive peacefully in society, do I really want to gain at the expense of another? And if I get away with it initially, I will have to worry about being found out for a long time. Instead, if I inform the store owner that his cash register was mistakenly left open, I may make a friend.

To conclude: I don’t think that society will break down from economically enlightened individuals thinking through the situations they are in, and how it affects their ends (in either a small society or a complex one). In fact, I think quite the opposite.

In regards to partners in crime: the previous analysis applies to an individual considering crime as well as a group considering crime.

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