Hatless in Seattle

Dear Reid,

I have an annoyance with my roommates. Last week, during a frolic of some sort, it seems my wool hat fell out of my coat pocket. I didn’t notice it missing at the time, so the hat was left lying in the yard. The next morning, in a hurry to get to class, one of my usually considerate roommates saw the hat and left it lying in the dirt, reportedly figuring that I would see it. My other roommate, who is a likewise generally thoughtful individual, also saw the the article in question, only a week or so later, and again neglected to pick it up. Now, she was leaving town at the time and was making numerous trips back and forth to the house. Apparently for both of these otherwise lovely women, stooping over to pick up the hat would have taken too much time–it’s not like it would have had to have been brought back in the house, just throwing it in the car would have helped.

It snowed the day of the first sighting; I didn’t see the hat. My roommie, upon returning home, also didn’t see the hat (it was now covered with snow) and figured I had picked it up. Nor did my roommate mention anything to me about my poor hat lying cold and helpless in the dirt, so that I might go and rescue it. Nor did my out-of-town-bound roommate leave any sort of note concerning the whereabouts of my woolen warmer. The first I heard of it was Monday evening, when I met my roommies on campus, and was confronted by both of them with accusations of leaving my dirty hat in the middle of the kitchen. It seems that the significant other of one of my roommates found the hat and brought it into the house. Finally someone took a little initiative!

So now there appears to be some animosity between my roommates and I. They think it’s entirely my fault that my hat was in the dirt and snow for a week and a half. I agree that it was my doing that put the hat there in the first place, but come on! Who sees something belonging to their roommate lying in the yard and just leaves it there? And then to yell at me for leaving my dirty hat lying around, when it wouldn’t have been so bad had either roommate picked it up, or even told me about it, when it was first seen, is incredible to me. Please, help us settle this argument.

Sincerely,
Hatless in Seattle

I know how you feel. It is important to have a sense of trust and respect for one’s roommates. When your roommates show such a lack of respect as ignoring a piece of your personal property lying in the dirt, it’s bound to generate some negative emotions.

Now, I want you to realize that I’m not taking sides on this issue, because there are valid points on both sides of the story. You clearly present a strong argument that a caring and trustworthy roommate should seek to protect another roommate’s property when they can do so with minimal effort. But then again, the United States is a characteristically individualist society, and the very force of self-interest which drives our market economy by an invisible hand dictates that your roommate should not pick up the hat unless there is something in it for him or her.

In a discussion such as this, it is perhaps appropriate to take a look at the writings of the (probably inappropriately) named “Father of Communism,” Babeuf. Babeuf envisioned a society with no private ownership of any kind. All producer and consumer goods (that’s everything from natural resources to wool hats) would be owned communally by everyone within the society. Rather than being driven by individualistic material incentives to act, people would act out of a moral obligation to society. When they found a hat lying on the ground, they would pick it up, not because it belonged to them (though it would, in effect, belong to every member of the society), but beacuse it was the right thing to do.

Unfortunately, people just don’t seem to be driven by these kinds of incentives. It doesn’t seem to matter what kind of society people live in, they are always concerned with what’s in it for them. Unconsciously, your roommate performed a basic cost/benefit analysis when making the decision to leave the hat. The roommate obviously decided that the cost of time lost by bending over to pick up the hat outweighed the benefits of your appreciation or the costs of your anger. So, logically, you can see that you should have no reason or right to expect that your roommate would pick up your hat from the dirt, unless you had at some point offered a reward for its return.

Another possible explanation for leaving the hat unattended on the ground is that your roommate simply doesn’t like you, or maybe doesn’t like the hat. Imagine these thoughts running through the head of your roommate: “Oh, you finally decided to ditch that ugly hat. Good. I wonder why you didn’t just throw it in the trash instead of tossing it in the yard. Oh well, at least it will be out of our sight until spring.”

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