On Sunday, I and my wife were strolling along The Mall in KL when a girl grabbed my arm, applied skin cream on it and proceeded to deliver a sales pitch on the virtues of the skin cream she was peddling. We listened because we had nothing else to do – we were there to while away time before the flight and also because my wife was really interested in buying skin cream. We eventually bought some.
It was only after the saleswoman had parted with the arm and I was poorer by forty ringgit did the libertarian in me ask the obvious question – what if the genders had been reversed? When the girl grabbed by arm, my reaction, and that of my wife was amusement. If a salesman had grabbed my wife’s arm for whatever reason, it would have probably sparked off a fight.
Or what if I belonged to an orthodox Jewish sect that forbade any physical contact between men and women not married to each other? Or if I were a Buddhist monk and considered a woman’s touch the first step on the road to temptation? Or what if I were just lost in thought, thinking up my next blog post and did not wish to be disturbed?
And what is the acceptable response if I had found the girl’s action offensive? Should I just smile and brush her away, frown and brush her away, angrily tell her that she shouldn’t do it, get into a fistfight, complain to the police, or sue for damages?
Obviously the libertarian response to these questions will be quite inadequate. Yes The Mall is private property and the owner has a right to set the rules and if he had made me sign a contract before entering, I’d have been clear about what to expect. But needless to say, it is not possible to sign contracts before every single interaction between two people. The strawman socialist position would involve the government making rules for every single thing – that would be just as impractical.
Therefore, it seems to me that good libertarians should show much greater respect for customs and culture, things that provide soft rules for interaction between people, than they do now. They provide guidance on how to behave and what to expect of other people in situations where property rights and contractual norms are not very clear. That way, governments don’t need to get involved, contracts don’t need to be too detailed, cases don’t need to be filed and when they are filed, courts can look at existing behavioural norms to figure out which person was at fault.
To a large extent, it does not matter* which norm we choose, as long as we choose one and everyone abides by it. If I know that I might get disturbed by salespeople at a mall, I will decide to take my quiet walks elsewhere. If my wife knows that it is the norm for salesmen to touch women while trying to make a sale, my wife will not misunderstand sales pitches as cases of sexual harrassment. If salesgirls know that they are supposed to keep away from people in saffron robes, they will. We all just need to know.
*Not strictly true, but we will revisit this some other day.