If you found a wallet, would you return it?

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Hottest buzz in the travel world: a human error caused United Airlines to offer tickets for $0 for a brief time. Some of the comments are telling.

One Houston woman booked a Christmas trip back to Washington to visit her parents for $5; the return leg was $220, but it was still a cheap ticket. But why wait? She decided to try booking a cheap flight to surprise her parents today. “It was $5 round-trip, no fees, nothing,” she says. “This is nuts.” She checked in right away and printed her boarding pass hoping to increase her chances of being able to use the ticket.

United, to their credit, decided to honor the fares.

One attorney – irony! – who got six tickets to LA for all of $60, said “They took the high road, said, ‘We made a mistake.’ It may cost them some money on the front end, but it saves them potential litigation and bad press.”

The bad behavior of corporations is always good for a public outrage fest or a media frenzy, and there’s no disputing the fact that many businesses, large and small, are out to get as much as they can from the public and their employees as the law will permit. It’s natural, then, that people should see a chance to get their own back when the opportunity presents itself as a well-deserved entitlement, but there’s something fundamentally wrong with this attitude. Taking advantage of an obvious error is no better than finding a wallet on the street, stuffed with cash, and keeping it.

Speaking of lost wallets, it appears that according to one study, honest people outnumber the dishonest by a margin of three to one – but from where I sit, a 25% failure rate is still a pretty dismal showing. You can say all you want about times being tough, but honesty is an absolute: you don’t take, nor do you have a right to, that which is not yours. An Ethiopian cab driver in Las Vegas understood this when he found $200,000 left in his cab and promptly returned it; the owner tipped him $2,000 for his honesty, but I was unsettled by some of the comments from his friends:

“That’s all? How about 10 percent, at least? That’s $20,000. How about 15 or 20 percent? That’s the going rate for tips in Vegas, after all.”

There is no greater reward for honesty than the knowledge in one’s heart that one has done the right thing. Even if the owner of the money had been a thermonuclear cheapskate – had he given the cabbie nothing at all, or $5.00, for example – the fact remains that the money was never the cabdriver’s in the first place, and he had no right to a penny of it; this concept was obviously lost on his friends, who saw an opportunity to profit from someone else’s mistake and were disappointed when it wasn’t as lucrative as they hoped.

So our lawyer friend, who had the good fortune of scoring six – count them, six – free tickets due to United’s error, was not only reveling in his good fortune, he was also dangling the litigation card by implying that if United had failed to honor their error, they would have been sued – and sadly, there’s no question that he is right. In fact, I’m sure he would have happily jumped on the bandwagon for a share of the settlement, or at the very least, the billable hours from his work on the case. United understood this, and decided quickly that it would be cheaper to eat the costs of their error than face a rash of lawsuits and bad publicity – none of which would have been possible without a universal sense (or at least, extrapolating from the wallet study, a 25% sense) that “finders keepers” trumps “thou shalt not steal.”

Justification for dishonesty takes many forms. Conversations with Nigerian scammers have shown that there is a country-wide sense that any money extorted from rich westerners is payback for decades of colonial rape (from the 419eater Ethics page):

  1. Nigeria was a happy and peaceful country until the west came along.
  2. Western companies, such as Halliburton and Shell, bribed their way into the country and proceeded to strip Nigeria of its assets leaving the inhabitants poverty stricken and struggling to survive.
  3. The West is responsible and now it is payback time.

One scammer wrote,

“Ok, I don’t really call it cheating, most times the smart person become victorious. Some body has to pay what we call retribution. From what Africa went through during the Slave trade era, the west took all our resources, manpower, and our cultural and traditional wares… Some body will pay some how what your lineage owed.”

On top of this, there is a culture in Nigeria that esteems those who can make money without working.

On the other hand, sometimes dishonesty is born of countrywide desperation – a perfect example of a society that functions more or less based on the Ferengi “Rules of Acquisition” is Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. An article in the September, 2013 issue of National Geographic paints a vivid picture of a society that is doing its best to survive plunder from within and without:

Despite its status as the capital city of the second largest country in all of Africa, Kinshasa is a marvel of dysfunction. Each of the government ministries has to be, as one U.S. official tactfully puts it, “basically self-financing”—meaning much of the money it has is generated by bribery and extortion. This is especially true of the police, who, says the aid adviser, “are one hundred percent on the take. Every one of them is an officer for one reason: to collect for himself.”

You would be right to expect anarchy from this collision of burgeoning poverty and state failure. But the West’s faith in institutions happens to be irrelevant in this slapdash confluence of metropolis and village. Nor is Kinshasa’s story the familiar African tale of woe, oppression, and no way out. Having first gained independence in 1960 from their Belgian colonizers, who left behind no governing capacity to speak of, and having then been deceived and plundered by the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, the Congolese have long since discarded expectations that their civil institutions and elected leaders will perform as promised. The miracle of Kinshasa is that it has not discarded hope along the way. On the contrary: This is a city of frenzied entrepreneurship, where everyone is a salesman of whatever merchandise comes along, an uncertified specialist—self-employed, self-styled—a creator amid chaos, an artist in a shed.

I’ve been to Kinshasa four times, and experienced this first hand.

  • I brought some computer equipment into the country on behalf of a gentleman who was providing it for his friends. $200.00 “duty” had to be paid before it would be released, and I’m certain that fee was determined arbitrarily by the customs agent on duty for that day, to be shared with my “escort” who facilitated all my dealings while in the country.
  • When leaving the airport, I was surrounded by people who demanded money for everything and nothing; the sleepy-eyed “official” lady at the gate who asked if I had any Congolese francs; when I said yes, she said, “Give them to me.” Now, there is a government requirement that no Congolese money can be taken out of the country, so she was justified in asking – but the fact that I produced a handful of currency worth only about 50¢ clearly annoyed her, and it was plain that the government would see little, if any, of what she collected. [1] Other people, none of whom I knew, simply asked directly: “Give me twenty dollars.”
  • My above-mentioned escort was a leading member of the Church community I was there interacting with. A rising star among the congregation, he was a trusted advisor to the mission president and a member of Church leadership. He ended up plundering the office safe and throwing away an astonishing opportunity to advance both in his country and in the world… all for a few dollars within easy reach that he thought he was entitled to because he could take them.
  • On the subject of missionaries, the Church in Congo was obliged to re-supply their missionary apartments after every transfer, because everything that had value was stripped by the departing missionaries, sold on the street, and the funds sent back to waiting families. At the time, the administration was instructed that there was to be no disciplinary action for such things, because this behavior was so deeply-rooted in the culture.

It gets sticky, doesn’t it? When your entire country is based on “catch as catch can,” there seems little hope for breaking out of the cycle. For what it’s worth, I love the Congolese people that I have known, and I wouldn’t presume to judge them; I can’t imagine living in such chaos, nor do I know what I would do in their shoes. But we live in a different society than Nigeria or the DRC; the poorest of the poor in our nation would be considered solidly middle-class by many African cultures.

United Airlines made a mistake, and stood by it; from a strictly ethical point of view they were not obliged to, but from a public-relations point of view they made the best choice possible. It gets them some positive karma (which they sorely need, after the “United Breaks Guitars” debacle) and ends up being cheaper in the long run. But the episode serves to point out that we have a serious breakdown of ethics in our own country, one which will surely cause our nation more collateral damage in the future.

The Old Wolf has spoken.


[1] I am reminded of the attitude of Praetor Garovirus in “Asterix in Switzerland”:

asterix

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