Do you trust people who profit from you?

We’re often told that we shouldn’t trust people whose only interest is to make a profit from us. I ran into a brief piece by economist Russ Roberts which stands that conventional wisdom on its head in an interesting way.

The other day I had to get some important tax receipts to my accountant. He’s in St. Louis, it was getting close to April 15, and it was very important that the papers didn’t get lost. To give my accountant plenty of time, I wanted the papers to arrive the next morning.

So what did I do? My first choice was to get on a plane and deliver the letter myself. Too expensive. Too much time.

So I did the next best thing. I went down to the airport and found someone headed to St. Louis. I told her how important it was for my accountant to have my receipts by the next day. Fortunately, she seemed really nice. She said she’d be happy to help me out. I sealed up the envelope, and she promised not to open it after I left.

I guess I’m naive. I know it was foolish to trust a stranger with something so important, but she seemed very honest. She smiled a lot, but I suppose a good thief could learn to do that.

I got a little nervous when she confessed she wouldn’t be able to actually deliver the letter herself. She had a business commitment that kept her tied up the next morning. But she promised to find some other people to make the delivery. [the rest is here]

Not to say, obviously, that the profit motive is somehow better than friendship and other deeper social bonds, but it is an interesting point that when we actually think about it, we’re willing to trust people who profit (which is to say: make a living) from doing things for us to do all sorts of things that we might hesitate to count on a friend or relative to do for us as quickly and efficiently.

UPDATE: Ummm… Okay. I thought I could get away with being cute and linking to just the opener of the post, but so that this doesn’t become a thread about whether it’s a good idea to accept parcels from people in airports I’ll ad this from the middle of the linked post:

I trusted that strange woman at the airport. I’d never seen her before in my life, and I’d never see her again. But I felt somehow she’d come through for me.

And she did. I called my accountant the next day, and sure enough, he had received my letter a few minutes before 10 o’clock.

A miracle? A lucky break for me? Or maybe a dangerous lesson that might cause me to rely naively on strangers in the future?

None of the above. My trust wasn’t a miracle or a lucky break. And I’m a little less naive than you might think.

That stranger I entrusted with my financial secrets was standing behind a FedEx counter wearing a FedEx uniform.

It changes everything doesn’t it? You go into a FedEx, give a stranger $19, and you can walk out without a worry in the world, knowing that your package is going to get there by 10 the next morning.

A basic look at why we think differently about sending things via FedEx than we would about paying a random stranger $19 to carry a package to another city is what the rest of the post is taken up with. (And no, it’s not because we know we can sue FedEx — their terms of service don’t really set you up to be able to sue them for very much and it would almost never be worth the trouble to do such a thing.)

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  1. That might be the dumbest thing I’ve read. He could have hired a taxi to private courier the thing for $500, but I bet he still would have felt more secure with FedEx for the simple reason that legal recourse against FedEx, a multinational corporation, is easier than legal recourse against an individual.

  2. MZ,

    Yes, the opening, which I quoted, is a bit cute, perhaps. But I think his overall point (you read the rest of the post via the link?) that whereas we would never think of going up to a stranger in an airport and asking her to carry valuable documents to another city and get them there the next morning, it works very well to go up to a stranger in a FedEx uniform and offer that person to achieve a very complex task for a small amount of money, is a sound one.

  3. Remuneration is only possible in an environment of trust and accountability; otherwise you are a sucker for trusting someone you don’t otherwise know and you’d have no recourse. That doesn’t mean it won’t work out — but there is a significant chance it won’t and there is no legal recourse if it doesn’t. the profit-motive is simply a barometer for what we value. The Church has no fiscal profit motive, yet we tithe becuase without revenue we would not have a Church. Money is important and it is a very useful media for facilitating the trade of free individuals. It is the LOVE of money that is the problem. You know who doesn’t like money — Socialists. And that twisted ideology is evil, anti-Christian and diabolical.

    Moreover, I would NEVER accpet a package from someone I did not know, especially to take on an airplane. Can you imagine some terrorist duping you into carrying a bomb on board!!!!

    We may live in the remnants of a Christian civilization but we are a fallen race. This was a dumb move.

  4. DarwinCatholic: What? And I thought only communists (pace JH) despise those who consort with the demons of Western Capitalism!

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