Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Can Libertarians Do Yum-Cha?

"Doing yum-cha" is a pleasant way to spent a rainy Sunday afternoon in Melbourne. Or anywhere other city. Melbourne has plenty of Chinese restaurants that put on a good yum-cha, and it's a popular way to celebrate special occasions like birthdays, wedding and divorce anniversaries, send-off lunches and those secret, after the event, "they finally sacked our bastard manager" parties.

A few words of explanation might be in order for anyone who's never been to a yum-cha. What you get is a lot of free tea (now seems as good a time as any to slip in the obligatory reminder that literally translated yum-cha means "drink tea"; however more intoxicating beverages are usually available, for a price) and a lot of dim sum*.

We're not talking about those bloated fish-and-chip shop dimmies here either, we're talking about the real thing: pot-stickers, steamed pork buns and chicken buns, shark's fin dumplings, taro dumplings, sticky rice in lotus leaves; too many to list at once. You don't order from the menu - the usual drill is that the waiters bring carts of bamboo steamer baskets past your table, tell you what they've got on offer and you say "One of everything, except for the chicken feet." For some reason, everything comes three to a basket, even the chicken feet. They must get them off those mutant three-legged chickens that turn up in supermarket freezers from time to time.

Each time you order something off the trolley, it gets marked up on the bill for your table. If you have the good sense to book for the one-thirty sitting, rather than the eleven-thirty sitting, you can easily stretch things out until at least four o'clock (the eleven-thirty people are the slightly pissed-off bunch being politely, but firmly, ushered out of the restaurant to make room for you when you arrive). There's plenty of time for ten people to knock off a good twenty to thirty steamer baskets. And still find room for a coconut jelly dessert.

The usual arrangement for paying the bill is that everybody covers their own drinks but the total cost of food is split equally over the whole table, with a decent round-up for the tip. It's this arrangement that I think would present difficulties for hard-line libertarians. It's fraught with all kinds of problems like those which create their aversion to high taxing, high intervention government.

Take the chicken's feet - I think very few non-Chinese readers would, so here we have a clear example of moral hazard (thanks to Martin Wisse for his succinct definition, in the comments here): if some brave soul at the table decides, what the hell, I'll give them a go, there's a risk that he won't like what he gets. And the cost of that risk has to be borne by the whole table.

On the other hand, the offcuts gourmet who orders a basket of chicken feet, two of which go uneaten, has just received a subsidy from everyone else and, to make matters worse, she's also squandered some of the table's financial resources on a pair of useless, and rather unsightly, bits of dead bird. A chicken's foot is unmistakably a chicken's foot - even cooked. To this pair of squeamish western eyes, the only part of a chicken that's any uglier is the parson's nose. Apparently there are people who consider this a choice morsel as well.

Moving on, there's the free rider problem. Most of the carts come with steamer baskets at two prices: the cheap stuff, like fried turnip cake, steamed pork noodle, chinese sausage, black bean beef, steamed pork and chicken buns, pork dim sum, steamed greens, sticky rice and, of course, the chicken feet. Then there's the pricier stuff: crab claws, shark-fin dumplings, prawn and seafood dumplings, prawn noodle, prawn cakes, sesame prawn toast, steamed prawns, taro dumplings, peking duck and often a house special or two (such as baby octopus, which goes down quite pleasantly with a dab of chilli sauce).

It isn't possible for everyone on the table to get one each apiece all round out of the pricier baskets. A rationally self-interested person might well decide that they're going to appropriate an extra share of the goodies, so long as they can get away with it. The only deterrent is the risk that if you're caught, it might be the last time your nominal host will invite you to yum-cha. That's collectivism at work; split the costs of a Sunday afternoon meal and someone's bound to rip you off. If the yum-cha hog is your nominal host, it's a clear case of collectivism equals theft. If I were one of those property-fixated libertarians, I'd be very suspicious of an invitation to Sunday afternoon yum-cha.

Finally, let's look at the problem of cost blow-outs. Bean-counting is generally frowned upon at a yum-cha, especially in the early stages, when everyone is eager to start tucking in. By the time someone has thought to do a quick reckoning on the tab, to check whether the imaginary community largesse will stand up to a couple more baskets, it's often too late: everyone's over budget. It's pure tragedy of the commons. Naturally, there's bound to be some shifty bugger at the table who'll try to talk everyone into a couple more anyway.

Usually this starts with a cunning remark that it's a pity that the turnip cake and sticky rice didn't turn up earlier. A turnip cake faction and a sticky rice faction will spring up and quickly combine to agitate, oh so very politely, for an order of turnip cake and sticky rice, if possible. And, because rational restraint effectively dissolves in a collectivist environment, the result is that everyone says, what the hell, we've already run over what we expected to spend, it's only going to be another buck each and let's keep an eye open for the dessert trolley while we're at it. This tactic hasn't failed me yet.

Of course, you've got Buckley's chance of making it work if you're hanging out for the chicken feet. You're only real hope is that they might turn up with the turnip cake and sticky rice. If they do, it's wiser not to order them - the turnip cake and sticky rice factions might get a little snarky** because the sight of you eating your preferred delicacy is putting them off eating theirs. And the dessert or coffee majority definitely won't want chicken feet around while they're tucking into their coconut jelly or slurping up their flat whites.

So, on the whole, it's very hard for me to imagine a die-hard libertarian being happy at a yum-cha. I think Mongolian barbecue would suit them better. The trick there, of course, is to know how to really pack your bowl. Otherwise, once you get it back from the chef, with everything cooked down to half its original volume, you'll discover it's half empty (or half full at best). This leaves you with two choices: stump up some readies for another bowl, or hope that someone with better Mongolian barbecue skills will finish up with some left-overs they're willing to part with. In other words, pay more or hang out for charity. Me, I'm sticking with yum-cha, chicken feet and all. By the way, did I mention the stuffed bean-curd? How could I possibly have missed the stuffed bean curd? Never mind, there might be a chance to get it in before ...

* Readers from outside Australia (I have some reason to think that I might have a few) may recognise that what we call a "yum-cha restaurant" here is a "dim sum restaurant" in most other parts of the world. I know that this is so in Hong-Kong - and the only way to get the staff to take you seriously enough to start bringing round the good stuff, is to pluck up your courage and order the chicken feet. At least one of you has to be seen eating one too. I admit, a little shame-facedly, that I wasn't that person.

** Another blogger told me recently that the word "snark", which I usually associate with Lewis Carroll, has now been appropriated to mean a peevish post on a blog (and I expect it's very likely to get extended to other written media as well). On this basis, I assume that the adjective "snarky" is a synonym for "peevish" or something similar. This is the one and only time I intend to use either of these words on my blog.

Whoever coined this usage obviously has a limited vocabulary: there are already plenty of perfectly good nouns and adjectives in the English language to describe nasty writing, and the world's most widely used but least popular word processing package has a handy little thesaurus feature which will provide suggestions if you need them. The word "snark" properly belongs to Lewis Carroll and has nothing to do with spite or malice. I admit that Carroll is dead, but there are a lot of Lewis Carroll fans out here who want the damn word put back where it belongs, thank you very much. And don't you go nicking our slithy toves, [mimsy] borogoves, mome raths, jub-jub birds, frumious bandersnatches, tum-tum trees or jabberwocks either. If you do, we'll set a boojum on you.

Update: thanks to mark for hunting down an on-line copy of The Hunting of The Snark, giving me the perfect excuse to update this post and fix up some wonky paragraphing at the same time.

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