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Should Tipping Be Voluntary?


If New Deal legislation had been enacted in the 1930s requiring people to tip waiters 15 percent of the total amount of their restaurant bill, we might have been subjected to the following debate today:

Repeal Advocate: Don’t you think we ought to repeal the tipping law and let each person decide for himself how much to tip a waiter or, for that matter, whether to tip at all?

Law Advocate: Are you crazy? If the law didn’t require people to tip their waiters, no one would tip. We’re lucky that President Franklin Roosevelt had the foresight to realize that people can’t be trusted with that decision.

Repeal Advocate: But we rely on the free market in other areas of our lives, and it seems to work. For example, we don’t force people to fund churches or cancer research, and yet people do so anyway. Why not rely on the free market for tipping?

Law Advocate: The free market is good up to a point, but it’s not perfect. Government often has to step in to make certain it works. In fact, that’s why Congress enacted President Roosevelt’s tipping law. During the Great Depression, waiters were threatened with starvation. Something had to be done.

Repeal Advocate: Isn’t the free market simply a process in which people are trading for mutual gain? Why should government officials be permitted to interfere with that? And I’ve never heard of any waiters starving to death in the United States, even during the Depression. Why not simply leave people free to help others on a voluntary basis rather than force them to do so?

Law Advocate: You don’t know human nature. You put too much faith in people and the free market. Sometimes government coercion is necessary to make people do the right thing.

Repeal Advocate: Shouldn’t a person have the right to decide for himself what to do with his own money?

Law Advocate: Of course, that’s what America stands for. But no one is forced to go into a restaurant. All the law says is that if you do eat out, you’re going to have to tip your waiter. Anyway, it’s only 15 percent, and so what’s the big deal? The tipping law also ensures that a person is caring and compassionate when he goes out to eat. What’s wrong with that?

Repeal Advocate: How can you consider him caring and compassionate when he is forced to leave a tip? I thought that compassion entailed voluntary, not coerced, action.

Law Advocate: In a democratic society, laws are made by the people. In America, we are the government. Because of our tipping law, you’re a better person even if you never go out to eat.

Repeal Advocate: Wouldn’t some people give more than 15 percent if the law didn’t require them to tip that amount?

Law Advocate: Not likely. Again, you trust people too much. After all, the tipping laws do not prevent people from giving more than the required 15 percent, and yet hardly anyone ever does so.

Repeal Advocate: Don’t you think that service would improve if waiters weren’t guaranteed a tip?

Law Advocate: You’re assuming there would be service. Without FDR’s tipping law, there would be no waiters, which means a lot less restaurants. Roosevelt’s New Deal saved not only America’s free-enterprise system but its restaurant business too.

Repeal Advocate: Why not simply leave it to each restaurant to decide whether a tip is required?

Law Advocate: Because those restaurants that didn’t require tipping would soon drive out of business those that did. And it wouldn’t be long before we had either no restaurants or only self-service ones.

Repeal Advocate: You’ve convinced me. Repealing the tipping law is too radical an idea. It might well cause starvation among waiters and closures of restaurants all across the country. Anyway, waiters have a right to a tip. Isn’t that what America is all about?

Law Advocate: You bet! And it’s also what makes us a free and compassionate people. The tipping law isn’t perfect, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.

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    Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.