Monday, November 9, 2015

Free to Negotiate

"Choice" is unilateral. "Negotiation" is multilateral. One of the astonishing accomplishments of the modern agora was to modify a negotiated transaction to something that more resembled unilateral choice. I don't have to argue price with a grocery store clerk when I decide to purchase a can of tuna. The benefits of impersonal, anonymous exchange are obvious and many. Sparing customers the hassle of the haggle frees both customers and producers to concentrate on doing whatever it is they do best. In my case, if today's breakfast is to be believed, it is preparing the finest buttermilk and apple pancakes this side of the Pecos. I'm only half kidding. If you're ever in the Northern Virginia area, hit me up and I'll ruin the pancake experience for you forever. You may never eat another pancake that can live up to what I am able to deliver. I've even discovered the secret of putting pomegranates in flapjacks. What the even?!?

Focusing on "choice" as a rhetorical device appeals to folks' inherited intuitions about the wonders of the market. Look at this guy and tell me he isn't impressed by choice:

Of course, that's just what's seen. What's unseen is the enormous tacit negotiation that has to take place to put all those different varieties of butter and cheese in that display case. You don't see the supply chain, the individual dairy farmers, the commodities traders, the accountants, or the managers. To a customer, it looks like choice. To an economist, it looks like negotiation, albeit tacit, ex ante, and by proxy.

The rise of the matching* economy exposes the tacit negotiation of the marketplace to the customer. Airbnb isn't just a matter of booking a reservation at a property held by limited-liability corporate entity. It's someone's home. Uber isn't an infinitely-replaceable convenience livery selection. It's someone's car. There's an explicit negotiation there, even if it's conducted quickly and painlessly with the assistance of software. But make no mistake, that negotiation is embedded in each exchange opportunity anyone pursues. Perhaps our rhetoric might benefit from acknowledging that negotiation. Particularly so when one party's "freedom to choose" abuts another's.

Then again, perhaps such a rhetorical shift is to the disadvantage of people with an ideological axe to grind. Changing "school choice" to "school negotiation" runs the risk of recognizing that education professionals have a stake in the learning process. "Women's health negotiation" might inadvertently acknowledge that more than just one person could be affected by reproductive decisions. I suppose I can see the peril in my proposal. Taken far enough, this could be a real mindkiller.

Exercise caution, you guys.

*The phrase "sharing economy" is misleading, even if the term comports with lessons taught in Kindergarten. It's less "sharing" and more "quickly and cheaply finding mutually beneficial pairwise exchange opportunities." I quibble because I care, people.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?