There is a standard South African anecdote that explains why we pay car guards: so that they don’t damage the car while we’re not there.

Obviously, that’s ridiculous. Because we tip car guards on departure, not arrival – so how are they to know if they should key your C-class in advance? Which makes it annoying when I read it written in books, or declared through streams of spittle by old-school overweight white men who do it to shock their foreign guests and bemoan the state of the country.

Yes – that is derision.

Nevertheless, since my student days, I have been unimpressed by dirty yellow vests trying to guide me into clearly-demarcated obstacle-free parking spots. I have also been unimpressed by the open expectation of tip for the service of running around the corner to stand by my car when I approach with the bottle of milk that took me two minutes to buy. On a sun-lit day. In an area that’s constantly patrolled by the neighbourhood police.

But because I’m interested in situations that arouse unreasonable vitriol (in me), I did some research.

An Introduction to Public Goods

A good is considered public (and, I guess, good?) when it possesses the following characteristics:

  • the good is non-rivalrous: meaning that my use does not, in general, limit your use. A good example of this is a television station. We don’t all have to watch CNN one at a time. We can all watch CNN whenever we want, provided that we have the right tools (ie. a physical TV) to access it.
  • the good is non-excludable: that is, it is near impossible to exclude people from the benefit. Much as we might like to package air into breathable pockets for those that are willing and able to pay for it – at this point in technological time, it’s just not possible.

The Suggestion: Car Guards Are A Public Good?

Well, in principle:

  • car guards are non-rivalrous, in that a car guard watching my car does not preclude him/her from watching yours.
  • car guards are non-excludable, in that said car guard watches all cars in his/her area, regardless of whether the driver chooses to pay or not at the end.

But Aren’t They Just A Public Menace?

To be clear, something can be both non-rivalrous and non-excludable – but that does not make it a good.

Pollution is also non-rivalrous and non-excludable. As is general obnoxiousness. And the loud music coming from my neighbour’s house in the early hours of Saturday morning.

No – in order for something to be a public good, there has to be a public benefit. If car guards are going to be providing us with some kind of public good, then they need to actually be doing something useful.

The prevailing sentiment seems to be that car guards are just a form of professionalised begging. And that is certainly the way that I have felt about them – as though they are somehow denying me the opportunity to be altruistic* by attempting to impose a kind of moral obligation for me to pay them for a service that I did not request after they’ve “provided” it. And a rather dubious service (“guarding my car”) at that.
*And for the record – I don’t really believe that this is sophistry. I believe in altruism and the giving of alms. When blessed with plenty, it’s important to share some of it. 

After all, very few car guards are actually going to fight crime on my vehicle’s behalf. Is the promise of R5 (±$0.50) enough to risk even a mild confrontation? Probably not.

So to what end then?

Well, this paper by the South African Labour and Development Research Unit suggests that the real benefit is actually more of a by-product. Car guards, by their presence, create the illusion of detectability and thus deter petty theft. And given how the car guard market has formalised (many restaurants and shopping malls now officially appoint car guards to their parking areas), there does seem to be some truth in that.

Also, car guards are incentivised to keep the drunken and disorderly away from their designated watch areas.

So in summary:

  1. they don’t just deter you from parking there, they deter petty criminals as well; and
  2. if you’re going to be bugged by anyone, rather a car guard than a drunk.

Consider this my somewhat-begrudging epiphany.

Because occasionally giving R5 to a car guard is much less admin than having to get a broken window repaired, and much less unpleasant than having an intoxicated homeless man getting abrasive at my window.

And at the same time…

Have more faith in humanity. Or social pressure. One of those two.

Because the crux is this: public goods are faced with the classic “free rider” problem:

  • Drivers are under no real obligation to pay for a car guard
  • If drivers were rational economic individuals, they would therefore not pay anything.
  • And yet, the sudden proliferation of car guards in South Africa indicates that South African drivers are less rational in a good way.
  • Either they distribute coinage because they’re good people, or they do it because they want to be seen as good people.

Intentions aside, the story ends with everyone winning a little bit (even if the driver doesn’t always realise it).

So, um, hurrah?