A largely unremarked upon, but rather remarkable, development in American life is that Americans are now spending as much or more money on food outside the home than they are in the home.

The average American meal is being prepared by someone other than the person eating it.

This fact creates an economic relationship between consumer and preparer/server wherein the former must pay some reciprocal attention to the well-being of those who prepare and serve. This attention is typically reflected by prices, which will determine remuneration for the workers.

In a “systems approach” such attentiveness might express itself in demands for increases in the minimum wage, without thinking about the small profit margins of most restaurants and the fact that consumers seem especially reactive to increased food prices. Most economists understand the disruptive effects of mandatory wage increases.

A non-coercive, more individualized approach emphasizes tipping as a mode of both raising the worker to a living wage and expressing gratitude.

In many European countries servers make a living wage so tips are already (effectively) built into the check. There are two downsides to this approach, however: the server has little incentive to provide good service, and the served has little opportunity to express gratitude. Indeed, in my experience the quality of restaurant service in most European establishments is substandard.

Now, I have no way of proving this, but my guess is there is an inverse relationship between how hard someone shills for a $15 minimum wage and what percentage of the bill they tip.

But that's not my point.

The point is how we think of social interaction: is it to be governed by large-scale abstract determinations (why $15?) that address “causes” and “manage systems,” or is it dependent on the free, erratic, occasionally disappointing but always other-regarding interactions of individuals?

The former seems well-ordered and reliable while the latter leads to disappointment and breakdown (servers spitting in food or customers stiffing on the tip). But systems in general can't compensate for such breakdowns of comity, nor can they encourage the development of the virtues necessary to human interaction, especially when the parties to the interaction are in an unequal position (disparities of wealth, status, etcetera).

I am thinking here particularly of the virtue of liberality, which may be roughly defined as giving from one’s excess; or, put another way, using well what one has the opportunity to use poorly.

Liberality is distinguished from charity in that charity applies primarily to how we relate to those for whom we have affection. Philanthropy, on the other hand, tends to be abstract and impersonal.

Liberality properly applies both to our attachment to money and how it is used in a transactional sense with another human being. Unlike alms, which are not transactional, liberality protects the dignity of the recipient by connecting the receipt of money to some action performed.  It is, paradoxically, a kind of merited gift.

Having money above what we need to attend to the necessities of life has always created moral difficulty for humans, but the virtue of liberality addresses both the acquisition of money and its use. Just as a soldier interested in courage needs to keep his weapons in good repair, so also the virtue of liberality asks us to keep our money in good repair. Saving money is no sin, but loving it in itself and thus hoarding it, is.

Indiscriminate dispensing of money neither respects the integrity of the recipient nor develops the prudential judgment of the giver. Liberality most applies, therefore, in personal interactions. In giving, the liberal person frees the money; he opens his hands rather than behaves tight-fistedly.

Prudent generosity in tipping thus meets the demands of the virtue of liberality, ennobling the spirit of the giver as well as affirming the good work of the recipient.

It is a genuinely civil mode of transferring wealth that doesn't upset the delicate balance of market exchange. The same cannot be said of advocating for a rise in the minimum wage which, while having a connection to distributive justice, requires nothing of the advocate and may actually harm the well-being of the supposed beneficiary by upsetting the operations of the exchange market.

Opening a policy brief can be no substitute for opening a wallet.