The Corner

A Failure of the Free Market

My contribution to the event narrated below may have been inspired by our exchanges about those Rothbardian firefighters down in Tennessee the other day, I don’t know.

Time: Around 4pm Wednesday, 10/6/10.

Place: The beach at Caumsett State Park, Long Island.

I live about 5 miles from Caumsett. On a pleasant afternoon when I don’t feel like working, I go over there on my bicycle and ride round the park a couple of times, sometimes going down to the beach to enjoy the sound and smell of the sea. I especially like to do this on weekdays, when there is nobody much in the park.

As this scene opens, I am walking eastwards along the beach (left-hand side of the picture here, heading rightwards), trundling my bike. I am the only person on the beach. Up ahead, quite close but hidden by trees and a curve of the shoreline, I can hear the sound of a helicopter, apparently just hovering low up ahead there somewhere, not going anywhere.

I am wondering about this when suddenly a young woman appears from the grassy dunes above the sand. She comes down the beach towards me. Her expression is a pleasant greeting smile with moderate tooth exposure but a very slight furrowing of the brow. Nothing can be deduced from her body language; she is too busy picking her way over sand and stones. I stop and wait till she is at conversation distance.

She:  I’m sorry. You can’t go any further. We’re filming.

Me:  It’s a public beach.

She:  Yes, but we’re filming, you see? From the helicopter. (She gestures towards the sound of the helicopter up ahead.)

Me:  Who’s “we”? Who’s doing the filming?

She:  (Names a company. The name is not known to me. Sounds like a realtor.) We’re just asking people not to go on that stretch of beach while we’re filming.

Me:  Yeah, but it’s a public beach. This is a state park. Do you have state authority?

She:  No. We’re just asking people.

Me:  Even if you did have state authority, it would only apply down to the high tide mark. Beyond that, you’d need federal authority. (This is sheer embroidery. I just made it up. I have no idea if it’s true. As it happens, this is low tide.)

She:  But we’re filming, you see …

Me:  How much will you pay me?

She:  I’m sorry?

Me:  A thousand dollars.

She:  What?

Me:  For a thousand dollars, I’ll turn round and go back.

She:  (Laughing nervously.) I don’t have that kind of money.

Me:  I’m not asking you for it. I’m asking your company, with you as their representative. (Indicating the walkie-talkie on her belt.) Call ‘em up.

She:  I can’t do that.

Me:  Look: You’re asking me to do something. I’m perfectly willing to do it. But we have to negotiate a price, see? There’s nothing personal here. I don’t know you, you don’t know me. You’re engaged in a commercial project. This is a commercial transaction. How else are you going to accomplish your company’s objective? You can’t stop me by force. If you tried, that would be an assault, or — depending how far matters went — possibly even a battery. (NB: I’m just having fun here. The lady is about 5′7″, 120 lbs. I am 6′1″, 190 lbs.)

She:  (Laughing even more nervously, but the greeting smile now fading fast.) I wouldn’t do anything like that!

Me:  All right. Look, I can see you’re a decent person trying to do a difficult job. I don’t want to create a big situation for you. Let’s say five hundred dollars, OK? For five hundred dollars I’ll turn right round and go back where I came from.

She:  I can’t do that. We’re just asking people to be nice.

Me:  I am being nice. How am I not being nice? But see, at this point I’m asking myself: If the lady’s firm isn’t willing to pay me to do the thing they want me to do, how important can it be to them, really?

She:  (Bristling a little, the smile totally gone now.) You can’t just go round demanding money like that.

Me:  So you’re not willing to negotiate a price with me, for the thing you’re asking me to do?

She:  No. I’m just asking . . .

Me:  OK then. Have a nice day. (Continues along beach towards helicopter sound.)

She:  (From behind me, plaintively, but with some angry harmonics.) We’re just hoping people will be nice.

It took me about twenty minutes to traverse the section of beach at issue, including a couple of stops to rest and contemplate the sea. Pushing a bicycle over sand is slow work. At first the helicopter hung around, occasionally coming down low to get a good look at me. After ten minutes or so, however, it went away. I had the beach to myself at last.

There was nobody and nothing on the beach — I have no idea what they were filming. How much did it cost the firm to keep a chopper in the air for the ten minutes or so I was holding them up? Did they have to rent the chopper for another day to finish the job?

My ask was absurdly high, of course, but that’s how you negotiate in a totally “open” situation like this. Nobody’s making a market on the pleasure I take from my beach walks. I’d have settled for a hundred.

Since the firm may well have emerged from this incident out of pocket, and I went home no richer than before, the outcome was non-optimal — a failure of the free market.

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