A few days ago Matt Yglesias linked to a blog post by Rachel Ryan about restaurant-tipping customs in the U.S. Ryan notes that her European visitor thinks tipping is ridiculous and essentially anti-capitalistic, saying, "They chose to be waiters. They chose to work for minimum wage. If they want more money, get a higher paying job -- don’t expect me to tip you because you were nice and speedy. That’s your job.” Ryan admits she has no rebuttal for this, since her argument that tipping is a reward for good service is somewhat negated by the fact that we don't tip everybody for doing anything in the service sector (yet -- I've been encouraged to tip just about every type of retail worker I've encountered in New York City).
I think this misses the point about tipping, a paternalistic practice that serves to strip dignity from service-sector jobs, deprofessionalizing them, while giving employers justification for paying employees low wages. You can classify my argument here as part of my jihad against customer service. (Is it okay to use "jihad" that way? I need to ask my local Tea Party apparatchik.) I'll indecently quote myself: "Generally I’m against customer service, which is typically a bogus way of making shoppers feel more important than they really are for an activity that should in no way be thought to dignify them."
The tip shakedown is a variant on the idea that customers have a right to demand special service -- that they are able to buying the illusion that they are treated better than the other customers and are somehow better people. (How often is big tipping not a sign of customer insecurity?) Instead of getting the privileged service automatically, customers must hold out their dollars like treats to get service workers to perform tricks for them. Tipping always and everywhere demoralizes the people who are forced to beg for their pay in addition to doing their work. It's a barbaric backward practice that functions as a kind of institutionalized corruption, as it assumes that workers are all de facto extortionists who will only do something for you for a little extra. Tips are supposed to promote "friendly" service, and admittedly, you don't have to eat too many meals in Eastern Europe to notice a difference in the way customers are regarded. But I don't want waiters to act as though they are my friend, and I don't want them pushing more food and drink on me to inflate the bill and thereby inflate their tip (as one of the commenters on Ryan's post notes). I don't want "good service"; I just want appropriate service, and also not to feel like a phony pasha lording over the lower castes for the duration of my meal.
Being good at waiting tables requires skill and practice, and those who learn to do it well are consummate professionals. But the custom of tipping reduces their labor to a kind of implied prostitution. It builds in the assumption of their incompetence, as though it's only natural they they should again and again prove they are worthy enough to be paid what they should "really" be making.