I walk into a restaurant and am promptly led to a table. A server — a cheerful woman who looks to be in her late twenties — immediately approaches, introduces herself, takes my drink order, and returns with a pint of local craft beer. After giving me a couple of minutes to look over the menu, she answers my questions about one of the dishes, and takes my order. After the food arrives, she continues to check on me occasionally, offering drink refills and dessert. All the while, she does the same for about a dozen other tables, always moving, always serving, anticipating the needs of nearly fifty customers and making our dining experience as smooth and pleasant as possible.

Finally, I ask for the check. The total is $25. I give the young woman $30, thank her, and walk out of the restaurant without receiving any change.

Similar scenarios occur thousands, if not millions of times a day in the U.S. Servers work for customers without specifying the cost of their labor, and customers voluntarily pay a relatively consistent rate, and so the customer receives service, and the server receives payment, all without negotiating, signing a contract, or getting the government involved. This system works so well that more than 2.5 million Americans choose to work in it. It’s beautiful.

And, astoundingly, it’s becoming increasingly controversial.

When I decided to write a piece about tipping, I assumed that I’d reach this point and then explain why leftist demands for higher government-mandated wages are driving the non-tipping phenomenon. Some progressives are even countering the “libertarian tip” (i.e., a cash tip with a note encouraging the recipient not to report it as taxable income) with what some are derisively calling the “socialist tip:” No tip at all, only a note explaining that the customer doesn’t tip because they’re pressuring the capitalist pigs to pay higher wages, or something along those lines. Presumably the libertarian tip is more popular.

However, when I shared a few preliminary thoughts about the importance of tipping on social media, something shocking happened. My friends on the progressive left agreed — and a number of friends who identify as libertarians, anarchocapitalists, voluntaryists, and the like slithered out of the woodwork to vehemently dispute the notion that a server is entitled to payment, and to defend their right to eat a meal, use a server’s time and labor, and then walk away without leaving a dime.

Now, to be fair, server wages vary rather widely from state to state. For example, in California, they are paid a minimum of $9 per hour in addition to tips. But in other states they are paid the federal minimum of $2.13 per hour. Here in Delaware, they earn $2.23 per hour. Obviously, tipping in California is different than tipping in Delaware; the Californian server receives a much larger paycheck from the employer, and is less dependent on tips from the customer, while the Delawarean server receives a much smaller paycheck, and, in fact, works primarily for tips. In the latter case, these tips are not really gifts or bonuses. They are the bulk of the server’s income; they are his or her wages, albeit paid directly by the customer rather than the restaurant owner.

Therefore, I contend that the Delawarean server works directly for each customer for a minimum wage of at least 15% of each check. I contend that both the server and the customer understand this and agree to it by meeting at the table, one standing, one sitting, even if it is not explicitly discussed. And I contend that if the customer receives acceptable service, pays the bill, and leaves without tipping the minimum traditional rate of 15% (or, unforgivably, without tipping at all), it is a form of theft.

“Theft” is a strong word, but it’s the best one I’ve been able to think of to describe refusing to pay someone who gives you their time and labor in anticipation of a payment that might not have an exact price tag, but nonetheless has a well-understood range of what is acceptable; 15-20% for good service, less for poor service, more for fantastic service.

Lest the reader wrongly assume that I feel strongly about this issue because I’m a server myself, I’m not. I’ve never worked primarily for tips. My first job was as a busboy at a buffet at age 15; we earned minimum wage, and maybe one in five customers would leave a dollar. On good nights I walked out with an extra twenty bucks for gas money. Later I worked in the pest control industry for a competitive hourly wage, and occasionally received tips, but never expected them. In both situations, the tips I received were true gratuities, little bonuses which exceeded the wages I’d happily agreed to work for. Many people work in similar situations in the service industry — say, the Subway “sandwich artist” — in which an extra dollar or two is appreciated, but neither needed nor expected.

But the typical restaurant server is not in that situation. He or she works directly and primarily for tips, and depends on them. If the server is a parent (more and more common in today’s service industry), their children depend on them, too. Stiffing a server after they work for you is slovenly and shameful — and, yes, I believe it’s akin to stealing.

Assuming that a particular server works primarily for tips, as those in my state do, the customer owes a minimum tip of 15% just as surely as they owe the restaurant the amount on the bill. Neither is optional, and stiffing a server is no different than stiffing a restaurant owner by dining and dashing. You are stealing the server’s time and labor.

Because stiffing and slow nights are inevitable, employers are supposed to guarantee a server at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, if not a higher state minimum wage. In reality, this is unenforceable and often ignored. Some employers hold servers accountable for some arbitrary amount in tips that they’re assumed to have earned whether they actually did or not. (“Beth only reported $75 tonight, she probably pocketed just as much.” “Steven says he got $60, but he usually makes twice that, put him down for $100.”) It’s even possible for the server to be taxed for more than they earned on a bad night!

Another point to consider: Even when an employer makes up the difference for a stiffed server, that’s an additional expense which cuts into their profits. If it happens often enough, they have to raise prices to compensate, and then everyone ends up paying more to make up for the handful of scumbags.

None of these quirks and problems are good reasons to get the government any more involved than it already is, but they’re excellent reasons for all customers to understand and accept their obligation to pay the appropriate tipping rate, and to pay it voluntarily and consistently.

For customers who happen to hail from that corner of the spectrum which holds that government is mostly or entirely unnecessary (whether we call ourselves libertarians, minarchists, anarchocapitalists, agorists, voluntaryists, or something else), there are other good reasons to tip consistently and generously, ideally in cash. Although servers are legally required to report tips as taxable income, and some employers assist the government in this matter, the reality is that most cash tips are either underreported or not reported at all. That means more money for the worker who earned it, and less for the government attempting to steal it. Where I come from, we call that a win-win.

A generous tip also demonstrates one of the core ideas of libertarianism: That people can more or less get along and handle voluntary transactions without government laws, regulations, and punishments. Yes, the government could force everyone to pay servers more by mandating minimum wage increases which automatically force price increases, but wouldn’t it be better to keep the current system of voluntary payment in place by participating in it and shaming selfish slobs who abuse it?

As I acknowledged previously, server wages are not universal. Some earn more than others, and some rely more on tips than others, making tipping etiquette a bit complex. First-time diners at a particular restaurant, particularly if they’re traveling, might not know exactly what’s expected of them, and probably don’t want to ask. There are at least three ways society could handle this:

  1. Every single server in every single restaurant could approach every single customer and inform them about their wages and the appropriate tipping rate before fetching so much as a glass of water. Negotiation might ensue. Then the server and the customer could enter into a contract, whether verbal or written. Finally, business out of the way, dining could commence.
  2. Restaurants and servers could collect the price of the meal and a fixed tipping rate before the meal is cooked and served. This would eliminate dining and dashing as well as stiffing. However, it would also eliminate the customer’s ability to pay less for unacceptable service, and to negotiate with the management if the meal turns out to be unacceptable.
  3. Customers could inform themselves about server wages and tipping expectations in a particular community, and make it a habit to pay an appropriate tip; never less than 15% unless the server is genuinely rude or incompetent, preferably 20% for good service, more for truly fantastic service. When in doubt, better to pay too much than too little. The more people who voluntarily participate in a such a system, the less likely it is that government will find an excuse to intervene and ruin a beautiful thing.

Don’t help the government ruin the American system of voluntarily paying servers for their time and labor. Don’t be a boor. Don’t be a thief. Tip your server!