Rental Cars as a Civilization Advance (Herein Also of the Valuation of Locks)

The ubiquity of rental cars are one of the great advances of human civilization. Think about it for a moment: you sign your name (and if you’re a member of a rental car company’s membership program, not even that) and you are given the keys to a vehicle that costs usually $20,000 or more. No questions asked. That’s a real hallmark of trust in markets and highly developed institutions.

via View from the Wing

I’ve wondered sometimes how we should treat the costs of locks.

On the one hand, you buy a lock, that is counted as part of GDP. Well-used locks genuinely make you safer; they add to your welfare function. A world in which you are allowed to have a lock, and can afford locks when you need them, is for you a better world than one in which you are not allowed locks, or they are priced out of your reach.

On the other hand, a world in which you need a lock is not as good a world in which, all other things being equal, you do not need a lock. If you could rely on something free — magic, social conditioning, hardwired biological morality — to secure your places and possessions, then you could save all that lock money and spend it on something else, raising your utility even further. So in this view, each expenditure on a deadbolt is a deadweight loss, a sign of a social and economic failure, a waste of resources that could more profitably be employed for something else.

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11 Responses to Rental Cars as a Civilization Advance (Herein Also of the Valuation of Locks)

  1. “If you could rely on something free” …

    Like violent and brutal retaliation by society for criminal behavior? There are still places in the world where thieves’ hands are removed…perhaps locks are not much used there. It seems to me locks are a step forward on the path of civilization. Unlocked doors, like communism, only works for small families…and even then, only some of the time.

    • Michael says:

      It is clear that costs of both security and policing vary enormously. In some places you need never see a cop yet there is order; others it takes an occupying army. Thus, it seems clear to me that social capital / social conditioning can provide a great deal of security / order. Not perhaps so much that you don’t buy a lock in most cases (although there are communities where people don’t lock their doors much of the time), but certainly enough that you don’t buy iron bars for your windows.

      To suggest that the only way to achieve this is by draconian punishment is to ignore a great deal of history and lived experience.

  2. Ambrose Mnemopolous says:

    I don’t think that car rentals are exactly “a real hallmark of trust in markets and highly developed institutions.” You first must sign a contract, which carries with it the full coercive powers of the state. You’re also responsible for damages and, in this day and age, rental cars are probably equipped with GPS devices that can be used to track you.

    In considering the macro-economic value of locks, don’t fall for something analogous to the glazier’s fallacy:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parable_of_the_broken_window

    There’s an old Arab proverb, “Trust in God, but tie your camel tight.”

    • Vic says:

      And as are ALL powers of the State, the rental car agreement is, in the end, enforceable by the on pain of death should you be uncooperative with efforts to retrieve the car and efforts to prosecute you for not giving it back.

    • Sometime you just need to stop thinking about everything being evil, if not it’s impossible to live in this world.

  3. Vic says:

    You might also note that we (humans) would not BE here were we not also competative by nature, as are all animals. the same instinct which creates the need for locks, creates the force for evolution.

    Every animal on earth would put locks on their stuff if they knew how.

    • Ambrose Mnemopolous says:

      > Every animal on earth would put locks on their stuff if they knew how.

      Not bonobos. We’re exactly as closely related to bonobos as we are to chimpanzees. Put 20 chimps in a room and you get a bloody mess. Put 20 bonobos in a room and you get an orgy. I think we’re actually much closer to bonobos: put 20 people in a room and, while no orgy, people will probably compliment eachother on their clothes, their hair, strike up conversations, maybe make a friend or two, and maybe some people will wind up in bed together.

      The competitive aspect of evolution gets more play because of the legacy of Thomas Malthus, but, really, we’re here today because of symbiosis. You have 10x as many bacterial cells on your person than you have cells with your own DNA. These bacteria help in digestion and out-compete harmful bugs on your skin and in your sinuses. We are cooperating — in symbiosis — with these other organisms, just as we cooperate with eachother every time we make a cash transaction or drive on the correct side of the road.

      Darwin used “struggle” and “competition” as metaphors, not to imply anything like actual combat. Here are Darwin’s own words:

      “I use this term in a large and metaphorical sense including dependence of one being on another, and including (which is more important) not only the life of the individual, but success in leaving progeny. Two canine animals, in a time of dearth, may be truly said to struggle with each other which shall get food and live. But a plant on the edge of a desert is said to struggle for life against the drought…. As the mistletoe is disseminated by birds, its existence depends on birds; and it may metaphorically be said to struggle with other fruit-bearing plants, in order to tempt birds to devour and thus disseminate its seeds rather than those of other plants. In these several senses, which pass into each other, I use for convenience sake the general term of struggle for existence.”

    • Barry says:

      “You might also note that we (humans) would not BE here were we not also competative by nature,…”

      Just in case you happened to miss out on the whole civilization thing, humans are extraordinarily cooperative.

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