Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Black Sea Gypsy Roses: Did I Do the Right Thing?

 

Yesterday I went for a drive with a friend to Şile, a little resort town on the Black Sea with a lighthouse and a tranquil harbor of fishing boats. It’s been there since 700 BC. It’s peaceful and lovely and slightly touristy but in a good way, meaning it meets your needs for a day away from the city perfectly–you go there to sit in a cafe nestled in one of the bluffs overlooking the sea with a garden of poppies and cherry-laurels and laugh at the geese and drink tea and remember that there’s something to Turkey besides conspiracies and traffic. Maybe you buy some artisanal honey or an embroidered cotton blouse that you’ll never wear on your way home; and at the end of the day you’re sunburned and happy.

roses-bouquet-colorful-02998.jpgAs you leave, and ease back into the traffic, you see quite a few gypsy vendors in the middle of the freeway. (I mean literally gypsy, as in Roma). They’re standing on the on-ramps; they flood the roads wherever the traffic is stalled, diving between the lanes, risking their lives to sell things to people driving back from Şile in a happy, impulsive mood–bottles of water, simit (Turkey’s answer to the bagel), bouquets of roses.

We slowed as we approached a bottleneck, and a woman with a brilliant smile rushed up to the car with three bouquets of scarlett-red roses–she saw a man and a woman in a car together, so obviously she figured she’d put the squeeze of guilt on the guy. (Poor target selection, but an understandable mistake.) And because I was in a good mood, and because the roses were beautiful, and because I thought, “Let’s make her day,” I opened my wallet and bought them all. There wasn’t time to bargain. I handed her a 20 lira bill–about 12 bucks–and she handed me the roses, and she was obviously thrilled and so was I, until I saw the expression on my friend’s face.

He’s Turkish. He was clearly pretty displeased with me.

“What did I do wrong?” I asked. (By the way, about two hours before he’d nearly split a gut because I’d said to our waiter–or so I thought–that the birdsong was lovely, but apparently what I actually said was that the noise coming out of the waiter’s butt was lovely. I kid you not. Turkish is just full of these perils.)

He scolded me because he felt I was supporting an exploitative, unethical black-market industry, that the gypsies working on these roads were part of an organized crime syndicate, that obviously no one should be standing in the middle of a freeway selling anything, causing a hazard to themselves and the drivers, and that the money wouldn’t go to her, but would be kicked up to the bosses who would then find new, inventive, quasi-legal ways to exploit and immiserate people like her and her kids. He wasn’t such a killjoy that he refused to take any pleasure in the whole business, but he certainly disapproved, basically. 

He’s actually influenced my thinking about these things before. I’ve stopped giving money, for example, to some of the more heartbreaking kids you sometimes see begging in the streets here because he’s persuaded me that yes, they are part of an organized begging syndicate, and giving them money does encourage parents to put their kids out on the streets to beg. And over time, I’ve noticed that Turks tend to know a lot more about Turkey than I do, so I’m never inclined completely to dismiss such a reaction.

But this woman wasn’t a kid, and she wasn’t begging, and beyond working in the black-market economy and causing a traffic hazard, she wasn’t committing a crime. She was selling something I wanted to buy. If you refuse to transact any business in Turkey’s black-market economy out of principle, you won’t even get out of the airport. Estimates vary about its size, but Erdoğan recently suggested it represents half the Turkish economy, and I’d be surprised if that weren’t an under-estimate.  

In a perfect world, no one would have to support herself by standing in the middle of a busy freeway ducking 18-wheelers and selling roses, but one thing we know for sure is that this is not a perfect world. Given that she was standing in the middle of a busy freeway selling roses–hard, honest work, if not safe and well-remunerated work–surely it’s better for me to support her entrepreneurial efforts than to take a principled stand against her working conditions? Even if she only sees a small percentage of what I gave her, it’s something, right? I very much doubt she’d do that if it didn’t result in her kids being fed, at least.

Besides, she was lovely. The exchange made us both laugh. I came home with three dozen beautiful roses, and she was presumably able to knock off work for the day. Also, I find innately repulsive the suggestion that all Roma must either be thieves or working with them. She was working, not stealing, and working harder than most of us ever have. 

I’m right about this, aren’t I? 

Oh, another small thing of some cultural interest: My friend’s other objection was that the roses were “overpriced.” This is interesting. Turkish commercial culture retains the spirit of the bazaar, in which there is an underlying assumption that goods have a correct, natural price. I of course immediately relieved myself of a lecture about the function of prices and how they convey information about supply and demand. If I was willing to buy the roses for 20 lira and she was willing to sell them for 20 lira, that’s the right price–there can be no other meaningful definition.  About that, I’m sure I’m right.

But that’s by the by. Turkish friend has been offered a copy of Free to Choose. The main question is: By conveying to her information about the demand for roses on that stretch of freeway (surprisingly high!), did I encourage her to keep working in a dangerous and illegal industry and support organized crime? Is this more like buying cocaine from a street dealer, in other words, or more like supporting your local hard-working, up-by-the-bootstraps greengrocer? 

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  1. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I realize that these folks are probably neither intimidating nor potentially violent, but I couldn’t help but think of the entrepreneurial squeegee men who once populated New York and other cities. What would Rudy think?

    • #1
    • July 6, 2011, at 3:48 AM PDT
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  2. Stephen Dawson Inactive

    This seems to be a culture vs economics thing, though your friend seems to be trying to recast the economics to support his cultural views. My view is that, from an economics point of view, you were perfectly correct. Where economics butts up against culture, though, only you are in a position to judge how far you can go.

    It is clear that while the culture within your friend’s class is to not patronise such sellers, it is neither taboo (he would have been shocked rather than disapproving), nor unknown. As you describe it, there were many sellers. Presumably too many to make a living from tourists alone, suggesting that Turks also buy their wears from these people.

    • #2
    • July 6, 2011, at 3:48 AM PDT
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  3. Stephen Dawson Inactive

    I remember a jarring experience when I visited the Philippines in the early ’90s. I stayed with some Evangelical Catholic Christians. One expression of their faith: they obeyed the road rules, which was almost suicidal at times.

    But they insisted: ignore the beggars. They expressed disgust over the way they used their babies.

    • #3
    • July 6, 2011, at 4:00 AM PDT
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  4. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    Basil Fawlty: I realize that these folks are probably neither intimidating or potentially violent, but I couldn’t help but think of the entrepreneurial squeegee men who once populated New York and other cities. What would Rudy think? · Jul 6 at 3:48am

    I thought of that, too, but “neither intimidating nor violent” is a major point of distinction.

    • #4
    • July 6, 2011, at 4:13 AM PDT
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  5. Viator Inactive
    Viator Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Buying beautiful roses from a stunning Roma is not the same as a poor rubbing of your windshield by a truculent bum. Was there any force or intimidation?

    If she was smart and I expect she was she pocketed the difference between the two prices. Maybe she complained you underpaid.

    I like grey and black markets. They reveal humanity’s lust for liberty and commerce.

    You also supported rose farmers (Israeli?) and possibly truckers and other middlemen.

    As you said you both got pleasure from the deal. The essence of this type of transaction.

    I loved this sentence “Turkish commercial culture retains the spirit of the bazaar, in which there is an underlying assumption that goods have a correct, natural price.” Economics in a nutshell.

    • #5
    • July 6, 2011, at 4:41 AM PDT
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  6. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I’d be interested to know what convinced your friend that organized crime was involved. Generally, I’d expect gangsters to prefer the kind of operation where they can bring their particular strengths to bear, although maybe the providers of the flowers are demanding a stiff cut of the profits. It still doesn’t sound like it would be lucrative enough to draw much in the way of muscle.

    If it was just because the flower-seller was one of those people, then it smells more than a little like garden variety racism.

    The traffic hazard angle could be reasonable, although the little I’ve heard of traffic in Turkey has made it sound like “traffic hazard” is more the norm than the exception.

    Hmm…was that last part racist? I’m repeating something I’ve been told by other people about an entire country that I have no direct knowledge of.

    • #6
    • July 6, 2011, at 5:04 AM PDT
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  7. Chris Johnson Inactive

    My problem with this transaction is based upon ultimately limited demand. As there is a limit to the number of people wishing to buy a limited number of roses, this transaction directly impacted the honest employer of a lovely woman in a flower shop or stall. That employer is less able to provide employment in a safer environment if his customers are captured in the street, before they can make it to his door. So he had to let her go and she had to resort to selling in the street.

    Locally, we had such a problem with beggars and “vendors” populating our medians and sidewalks that an ordinance was passed, outlawing anyone from soliciting from those areas. Anyone, including newspaper vendors and firemen raising money for charity. Harsh, yes, but being stuck in traffic is now less horrible, without the looming and glaring types approaching the trapped motorists.

    • #7
    • July 6, 2011, at 5:07 AM PDT
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  8. Linda Mair Inactive

    When in doubt do the human thing. After moving into a downtown neighbourhood my husband commented that he felt uncomfortable about all the street people on his route to by a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine, so I suggested that he take a handful of ‘toonies’ (Canadian $2 coin) and hand them out to the people he passed. From that point on he enjoyed his daily walk because these people became real and each of their stories was unique. Sure some of them bought beer or whatever, some of them were a little crazy and needed more help than a toonie could give them but ignoring fellow human beings goes against the grain for me.

    • #8
    • July 6, 2011, at 6:20 AM PDT
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  9. Linda Mair Inactive

    When in doubt do the human thing. After moving into a downtown neighbourhood my husband commented that he felt uncomfortable about all the street people on his route to by a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine, so I suggested that he take a handful of ‘toonies’ (Canadian $2 coin) and hand them out to the people he passed. From that point on he enjoyed his daily walk because these people became real and each of their stories was unique. Sure some of them bought beer or whatever, some of them were a little crazy and needed more help than a toonie could give them but ignoring fellow human beings goes against the grain for me.

    • #9
    • July 6, 2011, at 6:20 AM PDT
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  10. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    CJRun: My problem with this transaction is based upon ultimately limited demand. As there is a limit to the number of people wishing to buy a limited number of roses, this transaction directly impacted the honest employer of a lovely woman in a flower shop or stall.

    Did it, though? Claire bought these roses on impulse. She wasn’t out looking for roses (was she?). If Claire had been looking for roses, she probably would’ve gone to a florist.

    Also, by the logic of limited demand, every new florist shop poses the same problem to the old florist shops — should new shops be banned because they take business away from old shops?

    CJRun:

    Locally, we had such a problem with beggars and “vendors” populating our medians and sidewalks that an ordinance was passed, outlawing anyone from soliciting from those areas… Harsh, yes, but being stuck in traffic is now less horrible, without the looming and glaring types approaching the trapped motorists.

    I appreciate such ordinances because they reduce traffic hazards and public disorder, as you say, but not because of limited demand.

    Vendors who neither obstruct (street or sidewalk) traffic nor menace the populace don’t really bother me.

    • #10
    • July 6, 2011, at 7:01 AM PDT
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  11. StickerShock Inactive
    Percival: I’d be interested to know what convinced your friend that organized crime was involved…. If it was just because the flower-seller was one of those people, then it smells more than a little like garden variety racism.

    The traffic hazard angle could be reasonable, although the little I’ve heard of traffic in Turkey has made it sound like “traffic hazard” is more the norm than the exception.

    Organized crime and Roma go hand in hand. I would never support them by buying their goods. Tinkers in Ireland, like Roma, have earned their reputation as thieves. In-breeding, atrocious attention to health care, exploitation of children, and intimidating sales pitches are not to be encouraged.

    Not to mention that whenever we buy from black market sellers, the law abiding merchants suffer. Yes, you and the flower girl agreed upon a price, but you side-stepped the overhead that honest merchants are responsible for paying and the sales tax they collect.

    And the traffic hazzard angle is more than reasonable — it’s quite a dangerous situation to navigate around sellers approaching cars in congested areas, be they a gypsy flower girl or a NYC squeegie guy.

    • #11
    • July 6, 2011, at 7:04 AM PDT
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  12. StickerShock Inactive

    “Also, by the logic of limited demand, every new florist shop poses the same problem to the old florist shops — should new shops be banned because they take business away from old shops?”

    I think the operative word in CJ’s post was “honest.” New is great. Better customer service or products are great. But cheaters getting an upperhand over the honest business is not great.

    • #12
    • July 6, 2011, at 7:15 AM PDT
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  13. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    The main question is: By conveying to her information about the demand for roses on that stretch of freeway (surprisingly high!), did I encourage her to keep working in a dangerous and illegal industry and support organized crime? Is this more like buying cocaine from a street dealer, in other words, or more like supporting your local hard-working, up-by-the-bootstraps greengrocer? ·

    Did you encourage her to keep working a dangerous job? Yes. Selling things in traffic is dangerous, not only to yourself, but to the motorists who might hit you. But as Percival points out, if “traffic hazard” is the norm rather than the exception where she’s selling, this isn’t so bad.

    Did you encouraging illegality? I wouldn’t worry about this. And like Percival, I’m curious to know why your companion was so convinced she was a shill for organized crime. The Turkish conspiracy-theory mentality? Uneasiness around Roma? Both?

    Or is it really a fact that nearly everything the Roma do in Turkey is organized crime? (Doesn’t sound plausible to me, but then I don’t live there.)

    • #13
    • July 6, 2011, at 7:17 AM PDT
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  14. Southern Pessimist Member

    Organized crime is now peddling roses. I learn something new every day.

    • #14
    • July 6, 2011, at 7:19 AM PDT
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  15. Great Ghost of Gödel Inactive
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Is this more like buying cocaine from a street dealer, in other words, or more like supporting your local hard-working, up-by-the-bootstraps greengrocer? ·

    What’s the meaningful difference between the two?

    In any event, of course you did the right thing, for all the reasons you explained. The perverse logic that the seller might not be able to keep all of the price you paid, so you shouldn’t engage in the transaction, would also end all commerce if applied uniformly, as not even wholesalers are typically also the growers or manufacturers of their product. There’s always someone upstream, all the way up to God Himself.

    As for “you could have gotten them cheaper somewhere else,” well, maybe so, but if that somewhere else were X miles away, you might not be willing to go there, and the price difference could easily be eaten up in gas and time in the process.

    I’m trying to be reasonable, taking your observation that your friend knows Turkey better than you do, etc. but economics is economics, and I’m having trouble finding a reading of your friend’s thinking that isn’t bad economics.

    • #15
    • July 6, 2011, at 7:21 AM PDT
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  16. Great Ghost of Gödel Inactive
    StickerShock Organized crime and Roma go hand in hand. I would never support them by buying their goods. Tinkers in Ireland, like Roma, have earned their reputation as thieves. In-breeding, atrocious attention to health care, exploitation of children, and intimidating sales pitches are not to be encouraged.

    Forgive me, but this doesn’t get anywhere near passing the laugh test.

    • #16
    • July 6, 2011, at 7:27 AM PDT
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  17. txmasjoy Member
    txmasjoy Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Claire, If the point of the trip was the pursuit of happiness, why were you in the company of such a scold? Stop whatever you are doing at the keyboard this moment to go touch, smell, and admire those roses. Then have a loud laugh about what you said to the waiter. I certainly did.

    • #17
    • July 6, 2011, at 7:36 AM PDT
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  18. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    StickerShock

    Not to mention that whenever we buy from black market sellers, the law abiding merchants suffer.

    Well, yes.

    But when laws are so capricious or byzantine as to stultify perfectly ordinary economic activity, the black market, rather than the demimonde we typically imagine, becomes the means by which ordinary people get everyday things accomplished in a reasonable amount of time.

    From what Claire has described of Turkey, I wouldn’t be surprised if Turkey fits this description. According to Theodore Dalrymple, Italy does (or did as of a few years ago). Dalrymple’s The Uses of Corruption was a real eye-opener for me.

    • #18
    • July 6, 2011, at 7:39 AM PDT
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  19. Grendel Member
    Grendel Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    “Turkish commercial culture retains the spirit of the bazaar, in which there is an underlying assumption that goods have a correct, natural price.”

    I thought the spirit of the bazaar is that the correct price is the haggled price. Or is there a correct price known to both (all?), and the haggling reveals whether one party has a need that would induce him to sell for less or buy for more?

    I don’t buy any of this self-flagellation (a mark of limousine liberal self-congratulation) beyond questions of fraud and criminality. Even there, in an over-regulated, over-taxed unfree economy, freedom is illegal and the black market is the free market.

    If the street black-marketeer undersells the shopkeeper who pays the official fees and bribes, the shop’s customers are paying a premium for convenience and dependability. The street vendor prices his wares low enough to induce a spontaneous purchase.

    • #19
    • July 6, 2011, at 8:17 AM PDT
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  20. StickerShock Inactive
    Paul Snively
    StickerShock Organized crime and Roma go hand in hand. I would never support them by buying their goods. Tinkers in Ireland, like Roma, have earned their reputation as thieves. In-breeding, atrocious attention to health care, exploitation of children, and intimidating sales pitches are not to be encouraged.

    Forgive me, but this doesn’t get anywhere near passing the laugh test. · Jul 6 at 7:27am

    Well, you are free to laugh at in-breeding and exploitation of children, I guess. We all have a different sense of humor.

    • #20
    • July 6, 2011, at 8:33 AM PDT
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  21. Wacky Hermit Inactive
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake

    But when laws are so capricious or byzantine as to stultify perfectly ordinary economic activity, the black market, rather than the demimonde we typically imagine, becomes the means by which ordinary people get everyday things accomplished in a reasonable amount of time.

    This.Already it’s starting to get like that. With the rise of the internet, a lot of people found they were able to sell craft items. Then boutiques started buying from artisans. And regulation has started to catch up with them, and many find it is prohibitively expensive to legally sell their stuff now. I guarantee you, at least half the stuff on Etsy is already black-market, and most of the cupcakes and candies you can buy at craft boutiques isn’t made in a Health Department-inspected kitchen by people with food handler’s permits. The only reason they get away with it is because at the moment it’s not cost-effective for the government to come after them.
    • #21
    • July 6, 2011, at 8:46 AM PDT
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  22. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    grendel: I don’t buy any of this self-flagellation (a mark of limousine liberal self-congratulation) beyond questions of fraud and criminality.

    Worrying whether you’re encouraging traffic hazards doesn’t sound so limousine-liberal to me. More like ordinary civic-mindedness of the sort many limousine liberals are deficient in.

    That said

    grendel: Even there, in an over-regulated, over-taxed unfree economy, freedom is illegal and the black market is the free market.

    is spot on.

    • #22
    • July 6, 2011, at 8:47 AM PDT
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  23. Leslie Watkins Inactive
    Leslie Watkins Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Claire, you seem like a person who is quite self-aware and self-possessed. You responded to an inner impulse, which to me makes your purchase completely fine, regardless of its impact on the larger economy. The world’s troubles will continue, and you can never know the full effect of your purchase on the woman, her life, or the economy. It could be nil. It could be a tipping point. Either way, you came away with beautiful red roses and you shared them with us.

    • #23
    • July 6, 2011, at 8:47 AM PDT
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  24. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake Did it, though? Claire bought these roses on impulse. She wasn’t out looking for roses (was she?). If Claire had been looking for roses, she probably would’ve gone to a florist.

    Definitely true. Part of what she was selling was the pleasure of an impulse purchase. In no way were “three dozen red roses” on my shopping list, nor would it ever have occurred to me that I needed or wanted them had she not been right where she was, right then.

    • #24
    • July 6, 2011, at 8:52 AM PDT
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  25. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Wacky Hermit

    Already it’s starting to get like that. With the rise of the internet, a lot of people found they were able to sell craft items. Then boutiques started buying from artisans. And regulation has started to catch up with them, and many find it is prohibitively expensive to legally sell their stuff now.

    Yeah.

    It’s a big reason why I scrapped any plans to parlay my crafting hobby into a cottage industry. I found out, that among other things, to sell legally I would need… a liquor license, and to buy the material I want in an economical form takes clearance… with the DEA. Actually, the news is so discouraging that I’m thinking of giving up the hobby altogether. Plenty else I can do with my time without having to mess with liquor laws and the DEA.

    • #25
    • July 6, 2011, at 9:07 AM PDT
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  26. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    Paul Snively
    StickerShock Organized crime and Roma go hand in hand.
    Forgive me, but this doesn’t get anywhere near passing the laugh test. · Jul 6 at 7:27am

    Interestingly, I just had a follow-up conversation with the same friend. He basically said (I paraphrase very loosely), “Don’t resort to a cheap you’re just racist argument. It’s not racist to point out pathologies in a culture, and the practice of taking your kids out of school to put them out on the street to steal and beg is wrong. Trust me, that is really happening. It’s wrong not to judge that, in fact it’s obligatory.”

    And as I replied (again paraphrasing very loosely), no, it is not racist to point out pathologies in a culture. It is, however, racist to look at a woman who was not begging and not putting her kids out to beg and not stealing–and who was, in fact, working honestly and no more illegally than most Turks–and to judge her on the basis of any question beyond, “What is she doing?”

    • #26
    • July 6, 2011, at 9:27 AM PDT
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  27. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    I could write quite a long essay about the problem of the shadow economy in Turkey and why it is, really, a problem and not just a beautiful example of the real free market in action, but basically it comes down to secure property rights. Hernando de Soto’s explanation of why this is a problem is really dead-on.

    • #27
    • July 6, 2011, at 9:34 AM PDT
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  28. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    txmasjoy: Claire, If the point of the trip was the pursuit of happiness, why were you in the company of such a scold? Stop whatever you are doing at the keyboard this moment to go touch, smell, and admire those roses. Then have a loud laugh about what you said to the waiter. I certainly did. · Jul 6 at 7:36am

    So did he, in his robust defense. I don’t think he was being a scold–not much of one, anyway. The arguments he raised are ones worth thinking about, even if ultimately I don’t agree with him. The roses are on my desk, where not only have they been much enjoyed by me, but by my cats, who have been munching on them cheerfully all afternoon. In this household, we stop not only to smell the roses, but to eat them.

    Hark! I hear the unmistakable whoopa-whoopa sound of a cat on the verge of puking. Looks like I’ll be stopping to smell these roses in many ways!

    • #28
    • July 6, 2011, at 9:45 AM PDT
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  29. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: I could write quite a long essay about the problem of the shadow economy in Turkey and why it is, really, a problem and not just a beautiful example of the real free market in action, but basically it comes down to secure property rights. Hernando de Soto’s explanation of why this is a problem is really dead-on. · Jul 6 at 9:34am

    I’d be interested in reading that essay, and I’d bet other folks round here would be, too. (As I recall, you’ve already written at least one essay already on the problems with titles to real estate in Turkey.)

    Sure, not having secure and wieldy property rights really, um, spanks: a market can’t get very far without ’em. But until you’ve got ’em, doesn’t the black market look, if not beautiful, exactly, at least a whole lot less ugly?

    • #29
    • July 6, 2011, at 9:56 AM PDT
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  30. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    grendel:

    I thought the spirit of the bazaar is that the correct price is the haggled price. Or is there a correct price known to both (all?), and the haggling reveals whether one party has a need that would induce him to sell for less or buy for more?

    You could write doctoral theses about this, and I don’t want to simplify or to suggest that I deeply understand it, but here’s a hint about why when you go to the bazaar, you’re supposed to go armed with an idea of what the “right” price is: What if Hayek goes shopping in the bazaar?

    • #30
    • July 6, 2011, at 10:03 AM PDT
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