Let's Abolish Tipping

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[Courtney Knapp]

We know a lot about tipping. There are have been dozens of papers on the topic, academics who specialize in understanding the social norms, and little known accounts of its origins:

Tipping didn't take hold here until after the Civil War, and even as it spread it met with fervent public opposition from people who considered it a toxic vestige of Old World patronage. Anti-tipping associations were formed; newspapers--including the Times--regularly denounced the custom. Tipping, the activists held, fostered a masterservant relationship that was ill suited to a nation in which people were meant to be social equals. William R. Scott, in his 1916 polemic "The Itching Palm," described the tip as the price that "one American is willing to pay to induce another American to acknowledge inferiority"; Gunton's Magazine labelled the custom "offensively un-American," arguing that workers here should seek honest wages "instead of fawning for favors." The anti-tipping campaigns were so effective that six states actually banned the practice.

Though tipping may help make bars, restaurants, and coffee shops more interesting, there is little evidence that tips are related to objective measurements of quality service. I would like to see America move toward a standard service fee at restaurants and bars, abolishing the tip.

There are flaws with the service charge system. It could price out some diners, reduce what generous tippers give servers, and force restaurants into trial and error as they figure out the right fee. Perhaps that's why service charges haven't gained much traction outside a few high-end restaurants.

Before I move onto the complicated etiquette of tipping, I'm curious: would readers prefer the status quo of tipping, a fixed service charges, or menus that reflect an all-inclusive price? Are you ever confused about how much to tip? Leave your thoughts in the comments or drop me an email at 'MSCourt AT Gmail dot COM'

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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