A Stubborn Relic of Feudalism

by Henry Holt

There is a persistent question regarding the distribution of property which is of peculiar interest in the season of automobile tours and summer hotels. Most thinking people acknowledge a good deal of perplexity over this question, while on most parallel ones they are generally cock-sure—on whichever is the side of their personal interests. But in this question the bias of personal interest is not very large, and therefore it may be considered with more chance of agreement than can the larger questions of the same class which parade under various disguises.

The little question is that of tipping. After we have squeezed out of it such antitoxic serum as we can, we will briefly indicate the application of it to larger questions.

Tipping is plainly a survival of the feudal relation, long before the humbler men had risen from the condition of status to that of contract, when fixed pay in the ordinary sense was unknown, and where the relation between servant and master was one of ostensible voluntary service and voluntary support, was for life, and in its best aspect was a relation of mutual dependence and kindness. Then the spasmodic payment was, as tips are now, essential to the upper man’s dignity, and very especially to the dignity of his visitor. This feudal relation survives in England today to such an extent that poor men refrain from visiting their rich relations because of the tips. In the great country-houses the tips are expected to be in gold, at least so I was told some years ago. And in England and out of it, Don Cesar’s bestowal of his last shilling on the man who had served him, still thrills the audience, at least the tipped portion of it.

Europe being on the whole less removed from feudal institutions than we are, tipping is not only more firmly established there, but more systematized. It is more nearly the rule that servants’ places in hotels are paid for, and they are apt to be dependent entirely upon tips. The greater wealth of America, on the other hand, and the extravagance of the nouveaux riches, has led in some institutions to more extravagant tipping than is dreamed of in Europe, and consequently has scattered through the community a number of servants from Europe who, when here, receive with gratitude from a foreigner, a tip which they would scorn from an American.

In the midst of general relations of contract—of agreed pay for agreed service, tipping is an anomaly and a constant puzzle.

It would seem strange, if it were not true of the greater questions of the same kind, that in the chronic discussion of this one, so little attention, if any, has been paid to what may be the fundamental line of division between the two sides—namely, the distinction between ideal ethics and practical ethics.

An illustration or two will help explain that distinction:

First illustration: “Thou shalt not kill” which is ideal ethics in an ideal world of peace. Practical ethics in the real world are illustrated in Washington and Lee, who for having killed their thousands, are placed beside the saints!

Second illustration: Obey the laws and tell the truth. This is ideal ethics, which our very legislatures do much to prevent being practical. For instance; they ignore the fact that in the present state of morality, taxes on personal property can be collected from virtually nobody but widows and orphans who have no one to evade the taxes for them. So the legislatures continue the attempt to tax personal property, and a judge on the bench says that a man who lies about his personal taxes shall not on that account be held an unreliable witness in other matters.

Or to take an illustration less radical: it is not in legal testimony alone that ideal ethics require everybody to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—that the world should have as much truth as possible; and if the world were perfectly kind, perfectly honest and perfectly wise (which last involves the first two), that ideal could be realized. For instance, in our imperfect world a man telling people when he did not like them, would be constantly giving needless pain and making needless enemies, whereas in an ideal world—made up of perfect people, there would be nobody to dislike, or, pardon the Hibernicism, if there were, the whole truth could be told without causing pain or enmity. Or again, in a world where there are dishonest people, a man telling everything about his schemes, would have them run away with by others, though in an ideal world, where there were no dishonest people, he could speak freely. In fact, the necessity of reticence in this connection does not even depend on the existence of dishonesty: for in a world where people have to look out for themselves, instead of everybody looking out for everybody else, a man exposing his plans might hurry the execution of competing plans on the part of perfectly honest people.

Farther illustration may be sufficiently furnished by the topic in hand.

In the case of most poor folks other than servants, what to do about it has lately been pretty distinctly settled: the religion of pauperization is pretty generally set aside: almsgiving, the authorities on ethics now generally hold, should be restricted to deserving cases—to people incapacitated by constitution or circumstance from taking proper care of themselves.

Now is tipping almsgiving, and are servants among the deserving classes?

How many people have asked themselves these simple questions, and how many who are educated up to habitually refusing alms unless the last of the questions is affirmatively answered, just as habitually tip servants?

Is tipping almsgiving? Not in the same sense that alms are given without any show of anything in return: the servant does something for the tipper. Yes, but he is paid for it by his employer. True, but only sometimes: at other times he is only partly paid, depending for the rest on tips; and sometimes the tips are so valuable that the servant pays his alleged employer for the opportunity to get them. Yet I know one hotel in Germany, and probably there are others, there and elsewhere, where the menus and other stationery bear requests against tipping. But in that one hotel I know tipping to be as rife as in hotels generally: the customers are not educated up to the landlord’s standard. And here we come to the fundamental remedy for all questionable practices—the education of the people beyond them. But this is simply the ideal condition in which ideal ethics could prevail. Meanwhile we must determine the practical ethics of the actual world.

The servant’s position is different from that of most other wage-earners, in that he is in direct contact with the person who is to benefit from his work. The man who butchers your meat or grinds your flour, you probably never see; but the man who brushes your clothes or waits on your table, holds to you a personal relation, and he can do his work so as merely to meet a necessity, or so as to rise beyond mere necessity into comfort or luxury. Outside of home servants, the necessity is all that, in the present state of human nature, his regular stipend is apt to provide; the comfort or the luxury, the feeling of personal interest, the atmosphere of promptness and cheerfulness and ease, is apt to respond only to the tip. Only in the ideal world will it be spontaneous. In the real world it must be paid for.

And why should it not be—why is it not as legitimate to pay for having your wine well cooled or carefully tempered and decanted, as to pay for the wine itself? The objection apt to be first urged is that it degrades the servant. But does it? He is not an ideal man in an ideal world, already doing his best or paid to do his best. You are not degrading him from any such standard as that, into the lower one of requiring tips: you are simply taking him as he is. True, if he got no tips, he would not depend upon them; but without them he would not do all you want him to; before he will do that, he must be developed into a different man—he must become a creature of an ideal world. You may in the course of ages develop him into that, and as you do, he will work better and better, and tips may grow smaller and smaller, until he does his best spontaneously, and tips have dwindled to nothing. But to withdraw them now would simply make him sulky, and lead to his doing worse than now.

Another objection urged against tips is that they put the rich tipper at an advantage over the poor one. But the rich man is at an advantage in nearly everything else, why not here? The idea of depriving him of his advantages, is rank communism, which destroys the stimulus to energy and ingenuity that, in the present state of human nature, is needed to keep the world moving. In an ideal state of human nature, the man with ability to create wealth may find stimulus enough, as some do to a considerable extent now, in the delight of distributing wealth for the general good; but we are considering what is practicable in the present state of human nature.

Another aspect of the case, or at least a wider aspect, is the more sentimental one where the tip is prompted as reciprocation for spontaneous kindness.

But in the service of private families, as distinct from service to the general public or to visitors it is notorious that constant tipping is ruinous. Occasional holidays and treats and presents at Christmas and on special occasions are useful, as promoting the general feeling of reciprocation. But from visitors the tip is generally essential to ensuring the due meed of respect. Yet we can reasonably imagine a time when it may not be; and even now, for the casual service of holding a horse or brushing off the dust, a hearty “thank you” is perhaps on the whole better than a tip.

Considering the morality of the question all around—the practical ethics as well as the ideal, the underlying facts are that no man ought to be a servant in the servile sense, and indeed no man ought to be poor; and in an ideal world no man would be one or the other. Just how we are to get a world without servants or servile people, is perhaps a little more plain than how we are to get Mr. Bellamy’s world without poor people, which, however, amounts to nearly the same thing. At least we will get a less servile world, as machinery and organization make service less and less personal. Bread has long been to a great extent made away from home; much of the washing is also done away in great laundries, and organizations have lately been started to call for men’s outer clothes, and keep them cleaned, repaired and pressed. There is a noticeable rise, too, in the dignity of personal service: witness the college students at the summer hotels, and the self-respecting Jap in the private family. These influences are making for the ideal world in relation to service, and when we get it, no man will take tips, and nobody will offer them.

But in our stage of evolution, the tip, like the larger prizes, is part of the general stimulus to the best exertion and the best feeling, and is therefore legitimate; but it, like every other stimulus, should not be applied in excess, and the tendency should be to abolish it. The rich man often is led by good taste and good morals to restrain his expenditure in many directions, and there are few directions, if any, in which good taste and good morals more commend the happy medium than in tips. Excess in them, however, is not always prompted by good nature and generosity and reciprocation of spontaneous kindness, but often by desire for comfort, and even by ostentation. But all such promptings require regulation for the same reason that, it is now becoming generally recognized, the promptings of even charity itself require regulation.

The head of one of the leading Fifth Avenue restaurants once said to the writer, substantially: “We don’t like tips: they demoralize our men. But what can we do about it? We can’t stop it, or even keep it within bounds. Our customers will give them, and people who have too much money or too little sense, give not only dollar bills or five dollar bills, but fifty dollar bills and even hundred dollar bills. We have tried to stave off customers who do such things: we believe that in the long run it would pay us to; but we can’t.”

When all the promptings of liberality or selfishness or ostentation are well regulated, we will be in the ideal world. Until then, in the actual world, it is the part of wisdom to regulate ideal ethics by practical ethics—and tip, but tip temperately.


And now to apply our principles to a wider field.

The ideal is that all men should have what they produce. The ideal is also that all men should have full shares of the good things of life. These two ideals inevitably combine into a third—that all men should produce full shares of the good things of life. But the plain fact is that they cannot—that no amount of opportunity or appliances will enable the average day laborer to produce what Mr. Edison or Mr. Hill or even the average deviser of work and guide of labor does. Then even ideal ethics cannot say in this actual world: Let both have the same. That would simply be Robin Hood ethics: rob the man who produces much, and give the plunder to the man who produces little. Hence comes the disguising of the schemes to do it, even so that they often deceive their own devisers. What then do practical ethics say? They can’t say anything more than: Help the less capable to become capable, so that he may produce more. But that is at least as slow a process as raising the servant beyond the stage of tips. Meantime the socialists are unwilling to wait, and propose to rob the present owners of the means of production, and take the control of industry from the men who manage it now, and put it in the hands of the men who merely can influence votes. These men certainly are no less selfish and dishonest than the captains of industry, and are vastly less able to select the profitable fields of industry, and organize and economize industry; whatever product they might squeeze out would be vastly less than now, and it would stick to their own fingers no less than does what the politicians handle now. Dividing whatever might reach the people, without reference to those who produced it, could yield the average man no more than he gets now. That’s very simple mathematics. One of the saddest sights of the day is the number of good people to whom these facts are not self-evident.

In no state of human nature that any persons now living, or the grandchild of any person now living, will witness, could such conditions be permanent. Their temporary realization might be accomplished; but if it were, the able men would not be satisfied with either the low grade of civilization inevitable unless they worked, or with being robbed of the large share of production that must result from their work. The more intelligent of the rank and file, too, would rebel against the conditions inevitably lowering the general prosperity, and they would soon realize the difference in industrial leadership between “political generals” and natural generals. Insurrection would follow, and then anarchy, after which things would start again on their present basis, but some generations behind.

But I for one do not expect these experiences, especially in America: for here probably enough men have already become property holders to make a sufficient balance of power for the preservation of property. If not, the first step toward ensuring civilization, is helping enough men to develop into property holders, and continue property holders, which general experience declares that they will not unless they develop their property themselves.