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I Pay Them to Leave

A business exec told me that he thinks of consulting firms a bit like Charlie Sheen thinks about prostitutes. When I asked him to explain, he said that when Sheen was being sentenced for using a prostitute, the judge asked him why a man like him would have to pay for sex. And Sheen reportedly replied: “I don’t pay them for sex. I pay them to leave.” The exec went on to explain that he prefers hiring business consulting firms that also do their jobs and then leave.
I’m repelled, but fascinated, by Sheen’s reasoning.
This story got me thinking about the demand for non-relational contracting. Ian MacNeil, my former colleague at Northwestern, was famous for claiming that most contracting is “relational” — or extends the duty to perform contracts through time and repeated transactions. But Sheen’s (possibly apocryphal) quotation has me thinking that there may be contexts in which people would pay a premium to avoid a relationship.
Some people may at times prefer A.T.M.’s to tellers in part because they don’t want to speak to tellers. Some people may prefer Merry Maids to a regular housekeeper (or may prefer to be absent when the cleaning is done). Or some people may prefer buying at in part because of the lack of human contact.
Indeed, what’s scariest to me as a professor is that part of the student demand for “distance learning” may come from students who don’t want to have relationships with their teachers.
A rising demand for non-relational contracting seems of a piece with Robert Putnam‘s depressing Bowling Alone thesis that we are becoming increasingly disconnected from family, friends, and neighbors. I remember the day when you might have had a conversation with the person sitting next to you on an airplane. Nowadays, if you say more than a perfunctory hello when you initially sit down, you are trespassing into your seatmate’s personal space.
Of course, there are other ways to spin the demand for non-relational contracting. Restricting and regulating our contractual relationships allows us to control and concentrate our limited relationship energy on those people who matter most to us. Surely this is sometimes the case. But conserving our limited relationship energy may backfire. Our capacity to interact with others may atrophy if it goes unused.
Moreover, some of us may be healthiest and happiest when we interact with a variety of people on a variety of levels; it may not be good for us to concentrate all of our social energy on the most intense or important relationships in our lives.
I worry that there’s too much Charlie Sheen in the modern condition. Part of my revulsion is in the glimmer of self-recognition.