What's the right thing to do

Topics: Justice, Ethics, Virtue Pages: 46 (9738 words) Published: October 10, 2013
Justice : what's the right thing to do? / Michael J. Sandel. 1st ed. 2009
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
ch. 1 pp 3-30

1. DOING THE RIGHT THING

In the summer 01 2004, Hurricane Charley roared out of the Gulf of Mexico and swept across Florida to the Atlantic Ocean. The storm claimed twenty-two lives and caused SII billion in damage. 1 It also left in its wake a debate about price gouging.

At a gas station in Orlando, they were selling two-dollar bags of ice for ten dollars. Lacking power for refrigerators or air-conditioning in the middle of August, many people had little choice but to pay up. Downed trees heightened demand for chain saws and roof repairs. Con­ tractors offered to clear two trees off a homeowner's roof-for $ 2 3 ,000. Stores that normally sold small household generators for $250 were now asking S2,OOO. A seventy-seven-year-old woman fleeing the hur­ ricane with her elderly husband and handicapped daughter was charged

SI60 per night for a motel room that normally goes for $40.2 Many Floridians were angered by the inflated prices. "After Storm Come the Vultures," read a headline in USA Today. One resident, told it would cost $10,500 to remove a fallen tree from his roof, said it was wrong for people to "try to capitalize on other people's hardship and misery." Charlie Crist, the state's attorney general, agreed: "It is as­ tounding to me, the level of greed that someone must have in their soul to be willing to take advantage of someone suffering in the wake of a hurricane."3

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DOING THE RIGHT THING

JUSTICE

5

Florida has a law against price gouging, and in the aftermath of the

Jeff Jacoby, a pro-market commentator writing in the Boston Globe,

hurricane, the attorney general's office received more than two thou­

argued against price-gouging laws on similar grounds: "It isn't gouging

sand complaints. Some led to successful lawsuits. A Days Inn inWest

to charge what the market will bear. It isn't greedy or brazen. It's how

Palm Beach had to pay $70,000 in penalties and restitution for over­

goods and services get allocated in a free society." Jacoby acknowl­

charging customers.4

edged that the "price spikes are infuriating, especially to someone

But even as Crist set about enforcing the price-gouging law, some

whose life has just been thrown into turmoil by a deadly storm." But

economists argued that the law-and the public outrage- were mis­ .
-

public anger is no justification for interfering with the free market. By

conceived. In medieval times, philosophers and theologians believed

providing incentives for suppliers to produce more of the needed

that the exchange of goods should be governed by a "just price," deter­

goods, the seemingly exorbitant prices "do far more good than harm."

mined by tradition or the intrinsic value of things. But in market soci­

His conclusion: "Demonizing vendors won't speed Florida's recovery.

eties, the economists observed, prices are set by supply and demand.

Letting them go about their business will."7

There is no such thing as a "just price."

Attorney General Crist (a Republican who would later be elected

Thomas Sowell, a free-market economist, called price gouging an

governor of Florida) published an op-ed piece in the T
ampa paper de­

"emotionally powerful but economically meaningless expression that

fending the law against price gouging: "In times of emergency, govern­

most: economists pay no attention to, because it seems too confused to

ment cannot remain on the sidelines while people are charged

bother with."W riting in the Tampa Tribune, Sowell sought to explain

unconscionable prices as they flee for their lives or seek the basic com­

"how 'price gouging' helps Floridians." Charges of price gouging arise

modities for their families after a hurricane.'!8 Crist rejected the notion

"when prices are significantly higher than what...
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