For many years I was a general contractor. Technically I was a corporate finance lawyer, but really I had more in common with the guy who does your home remodel than I did with Thurgood Marshall or David Boies. I met with businessmen who wanted to construct pleasure domes of commerce and convinced them that our law firm should be their builder, or, if that’s too grand a description of our role, at least their electrical contractor. I sent in a crew of young lawyers to do the work, and if the client got what they wanted--the legal equivalent of a seaside estate--in their moment of euphoria and gratitude I convinced them that our exorbitant fee was worth it.
There are hustlers everywhere. Everyone is suspicious of lawyers, but what about doctors? Not long ago most colonoscopies and other minor procedures were performed in doctors’ offices. Now many such procedures are performed in surgery centers at twice the cost to the patient. Surgery centers charge facilities fees that reap huge profits for their investors, which are often the doctors themselves. These doctors are hustling, leveraging their medical expertise and position as medical gatekeepers.
Hustlers are the heartbeat of capitalism. There would be no economic competition without them. Are they worth it? Is capitalism worth it? I think we’ve answered that last question with a resounding “yes” (see Berlin Wall, fall), so we’re stuck with, or depending on your perspective, blessed by, hustlers.
The guys selling snake oil from the back of a horse-drawn wagon were pulling the wool over our eyes. We’re smarter now. Mostly we know snake oil for what it is now. Still we get bamboozled. Bernie Madoff ran a huge con for decade. Greed still gets in the way of skepticism.
The key to keeping hustlers honest, and to keeping the hustler’s premium to a reasonable commission for organizing work, is what it has always been: information. The more we know about what is being done and who can do it, the better our choices will be. Unlike government regulation, information enhances competition rather than stifling it. Information lets other hustlers see where there are diseconomies in the marketplace that can be taken take advantage of. The result is usually good for the consumer: better products or services at lower prices.
Amazon is democratizing commerce. Legalforce wants to do the same for much common legal work. Wevorce for divorce. Angie’s List and Yelp are arming consumers with expert reviews of service providers of all kinds. Hustlers are now making a business out reengineering the delivery of heretofore exotic services, like trademark filings and divorces, and of educating consumers about which plumber or electrician to choose.
Then there are Google and Facebook. Can you think of two companies that have had a greater impact on our ability to get and propagate information? With Google you can find out anything. With Facebook you can tell the world about it. You can start revolutions. And yet those amazing services are free. Really, if you step back and think about it, it’s mind-boggling. Something so valuable--unlimited information and communication--for free.
In exchange for the gifts of the Internet, we are giving up some privacy. There may come a time when the cost of that will be considered too high. For now, though, from my point of view we seem to have entered a kind of capitalist paradise in which the hustlers may save us from the hustlers.