Van Cott: Why We Say ‘Thank You’

March 30, 2016

by Norman Van Cott, Ph.D.

Next time you’re shopping, eavesdrop on conversations between checkout clerks and the customers ahead of you. You’ll probably hear clerks say something like, “Thank you for shopping Acme,” as they give customers change and receipts. What about customers? More often than not, they’ll respond with another “thank you” — not “you’re welcome” or even “no problem,” but another “thank you.”

To hear “you’re welcome” in a public setting, listen to the exchange when someone in a wheelchair is trying to open a door and another person offers to hold the door open. I’ve been confined to a wheelchair for the last three years, and I can assure you that my “thank you” has always evoked a “you’re welcome” — or at least a “no problem.”

Perhaps the reciprocity at the checkout counter is a rote social convention, but why don’t we see the convention outside the marketplace?

Really caring is nice, but it only works in a family setting or maybe a small commune — and at a tremendous cost in living standards.

For one thing, most thank-you situations have a clear-cut benefactor and beneficiary, but voluntary commercial exchange benefits both sides. Sellers don’t gain because buyers lose, nor do buyers gain because sellers lose. On the contrary, buyers and sellers both expect to gain in any transaction. That’s why both say, “Thank you!”

Does this mean that the marketplace is an economic love fest in which buyers and sellers are motivated by compassion for their counterparts? Hardly. Buyers and sellers enter the marketplace with conflicting objectives. Buyers hope to pay as low a price as possible, while sellers prefer as high a price as possible.

Buyers search for the providers most able to sell at lower prices. Since costs inform us of sacrificed alternatives, buyers’ actions minimize what is given up to procure any particular product. And that means having more of other things. For example, when lower-cost producers provide watermelons, we can all have more of, say, green beans. A “free lunch?” No, just bigger helpings. And more reciprocal thank-yous at the checkout counter, too.

Sellers’ simultaneous search for high-paying buyers also leads to more reciprocal thank-yous. Texas cattlemen will try to sell to National Football League training camps long before they contact American Vegan Society (AVS) conventions. Does that mean vegans lose out? No. Vermont’s bean curd producers’ search for top-dollar tofu buyers leads them to AVS conventions. We end up with more steaks and more tofu — and more thank-yous all around.

Even though buyers and sellers pursue contradictory agendas, all must act as if they cared about their counterparts in the marketplace. Self-serving buyers, in other words, must offer terms of sale to sellers that benefit sellers. Ditto for self-serving sellers: they must offer terms of sale to buyers that benefit buyers. Absent this as-if behavior, buyers don’t buy and sellers don’t sell.

Over my many years of teaching economics, I’ve heard numerous students claim that such “as if” behavior is not admirable. They claim that it’s hypocritical. We should really care, shouldn’t we?

My response? Really caring is nice, but it only works in a family setting or maybe a small commune — and at a tremendous cost in living standards. At the mention of lower living standards, most of these naysayers retreat from their moral posturing.

The market may not fit the selfless version of morality we were all taught as children, but reciprocal thank-yous hint at the gratitude we owe to the vast commercial network of as-if benevolence. We are all wealthier because of it.

T. Norman Van Cott, an adjunct scholar for the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is professor of economics at Ball State. He wrote this for Foundation for Economic Freedom.



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