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Trusting strangers

The other day I was speaking about swine flu with a friend of mine who’s a doctor. She mentioned she was going to be getting vaccinated soon. I hadn’t realized there was a vaccine and she said there was, but there was a shortage and to start with, health care professionals would get the first access. I mentioned in an offhand way that there was a shortage (as there sometimes is with other vaccines) because the government had stopped letting companies make profits from vaccines. As a result, the number of companies making vaccines has dwindled dramatically. Her response was fascinating. She said she would never trust the vaccine produced by people trying to make money during a crisis.

It was a perfectly reasonable response and a response that of course, is totally at odds with my view of trading with strangers motivated by profit. My view is a distinct minority, and reasonably so. At first glance, you should be skeptical of people who sell you things. They, after all are motivated by the money. You shouldn’t expect them to look out for you.

But they often do, of course, for all kinds of reasons—competition, future sales, to enhance their brand name, cultural norms.

What is interesting is that I think my friend, who is a wonderful doctor, would be offended if I had suggested that she after all, makes money off her patients and yet she is trusted. And again, this is a perfectly reasonable feeling on her part. She sees herself the way I see a vaccine company and its employees in a competitive marketplace.

Our conversation reminded me of this week’s EconTalk conversation with John Nye.  John talks about people’s distrust of anonymous exchange and markets in the middle of a crisis. John has some provocative things to say.