MPs, Haircuts and Debt

Nov 20, 2012

The other month someone posted this classic 'politicians are awful' viral story on Facebook,  I was reading David Graeber's Debt at the same time and it occurred to me what a wonderful summation this story is of a certain kind of debt morality:

One day a florist went to a barber for a haircut. After the cut, he asked about his bill, and the barber replied, 'I cannot accept money from you; I'm doing community service this week.' The florist was pleased and left the shop. When the barber went to open his shop the next morning, there was a 'thank you' card and a dozen roses waiting for him at his door.

Later, a cop comes in for a haircut, and when he tries to pay his bill, the barber again replied, 'I cannot accept money from you; I'm doing community service this week.' The cop was happy and left the shop. The next morning when the barber went to open up, there was a 'thank you' card and a dozen doughnuts waiting for him at his door.

Then an MP came in for a haircut, and when he went to pay his bill, the barber again replied, 'I cannot accept money from you. I'm doing community service this week.' The MP was very happy and left the shop. The next morning, when the barber went to open up, there were a dozen MPs lined up waiting for a free haircut.

And that, my friends, illustrates the fundamental difference between the citizens of our country and the politicians who run it.

Here, we have the evil MPs (it's an anglicised US story, other versions on the internet use 'politicians') are happy to take the humble barber for all they can, while the upstanding members of the community show their gratitude with gifts, and are thus good people.

But wait, wasn't the barber trying to perform community service? Didn't he say he didn't want money? Why is it good to sneakily leave gifts of, in the florist's case, at least equivalent monetary value when he can't refuse? The barber tried to give to the community but the cop and the florist go against his wishes and try to pay him, because of the discomfort of the cop and florist to even the perception of being in another's debt.

Graeber comes into this because he argues that the role of barter is to manage goods between strangers but in long-standing communities credit arrangements dominate. Something that caught my eye was that in some societies, to try to clear all debts would be an absurdity because to try would be to decide not to be a member of the community.

From this perspective, it's the florist and cop who are determined to treat the barber as a stranger by not allowing a debt to stand uncompensated, whereas the MP spreads word of someone who wants to give and gives them the opportunity to give more. Who's really the bad guy in this scenario? I find it interesting how revealing a story clearly meant to represent 'common sense' is about a particular modern idea of debt and community.

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