When you reach a certain age, your friends start getting honors and you are invited to polite soirees. At aforementioned polite soirees, there are cheesy delights and sweet little dessert tarts. The sweet little desert tarts are tastefully arrayed on silver platters and you can easily pick one up and pop it into your mouth without touching any neighboring tarts. You daintily consume a little fruit tart.
The energizing sugar rush behind you, you turn to the cheesy delight. You are pleased that at this soiree, they have put out the delight out of all delights – the baked brie or the “brie en croute” as we call it at polite soirees. You head over and shove your way into the line for the warm cheesy delight. You are rather aggressive and push past a distinguished looking man that you recognize (too late!) as the new President of Northwestern University. You grin sheepishly and say, “Hi. I’m Rakesh Vohra.” You hope this throws him off the scent – even though your colleague Rakesh is balding and white-haired, at least he has the right skin tone. The President seems to make a mental note to dock your (or Rakesh’s) salary and turns away to talk to someone else.
You turn to the cheesy delight and as you pause to pick up bread your forward momentum, barely broken by the President, is brought to a grinding halt by a fundamental problem: To tong or not to tong. That is the question.
In other words, should you use the tongs – always provided at polite soirees – to pick up the bread or just stick your grubby hand into the bread basket? If you think like homoeconomicus, you decision is obvious: Unlike you, many other people followed the proper procedure and headed over to the cheesy delight before the little sweet dessert tarts. They have used the tongs before you and the supersized tweezers are covered in cheeky little germs just hopping with excitement at the prospect of giving you H1N1 for Christmas. If you stick your grubby hand into the bread basket, you avoid the tong devils but deposit your own cooties on a baguette slice that someone else will pick up. But you are homo economicus so you do not face any moral dilemma: Ignore the “negative externality” and stick your hand into the bread basket.
Then, you are brought to a stop again, this time by a major “Aha” moment. Your shove into the line and all your procrastination is causing much grumbling in the cheesy delight queue. But you’re not even aware of this because you’ve had a huge epiphany: Following the recommendation of homo economicus is also the right thing to do from the perspective of society’s objective of minimizing germ transmission. You guess that Adam Smith must have had a similar experience when the idea of the “invisible hand” hit him just before he was about to tuck into his haggis and scotch.
You reason as follows: When you stick your hand into the bread basket, you might not even hit another bit of bread other than your own. Even if you aim misses because of the two glasses of champagne you drank on an empty stomach, you’re only going to hit a few other slices of ever staler bread. While if you use the tong, you are guaranteeing that the long line of people behind you get to experience your lack of good hygiene. It is better for everyone if you stick your hand in the bread basket.
Your face disfigured by an angelic smile, confident your are doing the right thing for once, you follow the route Immanuel Kant himself would take and finally consume some cheesy delight. You turn around to see the President looking at you as if you’re some kind of animal. You wipe your cheese covered hand on your jeans and grasp his. You say, “Call me Ricky.” You run out before your cover is broken.