Few know just how passionately I used to loathe the custom of tipping. There are hosts of reasons why the practice makes no sense. Tipping is clearly a haphazardly constructed institution (why do we tip taxi drivers but not bus drivers? slow-food servers but not fast-food servers?) badly in need of reform. The solution to this menace to society is obvious: abolish tipping. This can take one of two forms. In Japan, tips are nonexistent. In Europe, the service is almost always included in the bill. Both solutions are adequate, and the European way seems to be catching on in America.
I know - anybody who has ever worked in the hotel or restaurant business thinks tips are great because they rely on them to make a decent living. While tips might be a lucrative source of income, this comes at the price of the destruction of social relations between the service provider and customer. The very possibility of a tip turns any social relation into a cash nexus. I've felt this many a time talking to cute bartenders and waitresses. Is she being nice to me to get a bigger tip? You never know, and that's precisely the problem. If you're talking to a stranger who makes a living from tips, cash is the only thing doing the talking.
I found a nice formulation of this argument in Dissent (Spring 2004) magazine a while ago. It is worth quoting at length: "The relations between service providers and customers are also human relations. Within Italian society, barbers have a social role comparable to that of a priest or a psychoanalyst. One discusses politics, jokes with them, and confides those secrets that one wishes to spread around the neighborhood. To think that these human relations take place in the hope of receiving a more generous tip makes genuine dialogue difficult, if not impossible. I enjoy talking about food and wines with food servers and find it amusing to engage in heated debates. But when I dine in the United States I cannot avoid thinking that 80 percent of the income of my interlocutors is dependant on my tip. Is it even possible for them to contradict me when I argue that an Italian red wine is superior to a French red wine? The discussion is inevitably forced, with my interlocutors doing everything they can to please me. Their lack of freedom reduces mine."