Friday, January 14, 2011

Queensland: an ethics question

In a disaster situation involving both chaos and shortages, which is worse: looting, or charging ten bucks for a loaf of bread?



Penthe said...

I have just developed an incredibly complicated series of narratives in my head, in which poor, starving people are 'looting' because they don't have ten dollars for a loaf of bread, and were prevented from evacuating their house effectively (including food) because they were prevented from taking a boat without asking after the water started rising rapidly. Which doesn't answer your question. But anything that prevents people in desperate need from getting food seems like the lower act to me, I think.

Anonymous said...

I think that charging ten dollars for a loaf of bread is a form of looting anyway. A quasi legal one, which doesn't make it any better in my eyes.

Anonymous said...

I need to correct my earlier comment. I have no doubt that charging the ten dollars is legal - so I guess I mean quasi respectable. Completely unethical, but that is another story.

seepi said...

Looting is far worse.

Coming home to find your house had survived but your stuff is gone anyway would be the pits.

10.00 for a loaf of bread...just don't buy it.

- Along those lines (sort of) I hear that one of the good things about the Indigenous 'intervention' is that some of the rural shopkeepers who were charging 10.00 flag falls on any ATM purchase, were reported and moved on.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Seepi, the point about the bread is that there are massive shortages, of that and other things, because the trucks can't get through. Some of the lucky retailers who do have supplies are charging $10 a loaf because they can.

It wasn't really a literal question. It was more to do with framing the fact that on the one hand there are some really vicious comments in various online fora about stringing up looters, but on the other hand nobody seems to mind about disaster profiteering, which I think is as despicable as looting. As far as I'm concerned the workings of the unregulated free market are just as bad. Both activities involve blind greed, a total lack of empathy, and the opportunistic exploitation of people who are already on their knees.

Anonymous said...

"Queensland: an ethics question": speaking as someone who has strong ties in Qld, the headline on this post is a non-sequiter.

Ethics & Qlders? - sadly, its only a small exaggeration to claim that the two do not inhabit the same universe. Its something with which I struggled during my sojourns in Brisbane.

But whatever reservations I may have, I unreservedly love my friends & colleagues in Brisbane--I met some truly wonderful people there.

OTOH I cannot ignore the fact that many of them had spectacular blind spots on matters of principle. For many, widely-accepted concepts of ethics and propriety were unknown and, often, unknowable territory. It's as though their moral compasses have been demagnetized.


Anonymous said...

In a really serious crisis, like a major flood or a bad earthquake...

-- Looting of non-vital, non-essential goods (like televisions and furniture) is wrong of course, but if human lives are still in danger, then policing looters should be a relatively low priority. Authority is likely to be more needed elsewhere.

-- Looting of essential goods like food, water, and medicine should not really be considered "looting," but rather emergency requisitioning of these goods. Insofar as it's "wrong," (and there's a sense in which of course it is), the major wrong here is that the distribution of such goods is chaotic and could cause mob violence and public disorder. (As well as some people grabbing more stuff by force, than others with worse needs.)

Better would be for supermarkets and other places in a community that store vital goods, to have a plan in place in advance to distribute needed goods to the community for free, in an orderly fashion. I've always thought that those sorts of businesses should have a kind of community-supported insurance, with the understanding that in a crisis the goods would be distributed without charge, but that when the crisis had passed the owners would then be compensated by the community for the lost stock. Win-win. In the absence of such a system, the ethical thing would be for the "looters" to take the goods but sign IOU's, and keep their word.

Profiteering is of course highly unethical, but in order to understand why, (rather than just pointing and sputtering at it in outrage), you have to put a few more cards on the table, and make some distinctions.

Here's the thing: free markets are best (or at least better than the other available systems) not because they're "free" in some abstract way that says "freedom is good", but because accurate price signals caused by freely-adjusted responsiveness to supply and demand results overall in a better and larger and more efficient distribution of goods and services. It's really not a matter of morality, more like hydraulics; it's like noting that good indoor individual plumbing is more hygienic than a village's public open latrine trench. It's simply the case.

The problem with profiteering in an acute crisis is that the limited supply and increased demand do not (or presumably cannot) send meaningful price signals to the outside world; in other words, there's nothing to adjust until the crisis ends; so the large-scale "benefit" of a free market is suddenly irrelevant.

A profiteer who simply shrugs and says, "Supply and demand, baby. Ten dollars for a loaf of bread! It's a free market!" is not referring to the actual "free market" in any meaningful way. An economy exists to serve human beings, and not vice versa; in the closed system of an acute crisis (a town cut off, say, by a flood) price signals and the systemic laws of a free market are no longer relevant so there's no benefit to be had through them; but human ethical precepts remain in place.

In the case of a chronic, long-term crisis, like say a years-long drought, the question is ethically (and economically) more complex.

So, profiteering is arguably the worst of the bunch, but not for squeamish reasons of personal preference. Or rather, it depends on scale: what level of chaos or order comes from a given type of looting, as against what level of injustice does the profiteer exact. It depends a bit on specific circumstances.

-- j_p_z

Ann O'Dyne said...

I have to ask myself
'If I was suddenly deluged during the next hour, how much cash do I have on hand, how much fuel is in the vehicle, how much petfood is in stock?'.
Be Prepared.
I am in a regional large town on a major river which has serious flood warnings miles Upriver at Rochester. I am now thinking of the large new housing development down in the flatlands overlooking the picturesque Campaspe. There is a damn good reason why that land has never had houses on it till the last 2 years. Five straight days of solid rain stopped yesterday afternoon and those homeowners should now be filling sandbags, lining up the cat carriers, putting valuables in the roof cavity and fuelling the car. Has this dawned on them? Their part of the river will get the flood about Tuesday I reckon (but of course I hope not).
Profiteering and Looting are equally abhorrent. Plenty of profiteering before the floods if you ask me.

phil said...

Excellent example of the dangers of generalisation. We've had accusations of profiteering in this part of (flooded) world. However, in some cases the prices have remained stable, but what has occurred is people suddenly having to shop at smaller outlets, and so paying more than at the major supermarkets. We have good examples also of shopkeepers keeping their prices stable even though they needed to incur vastly greater costs in frieght to get supplies of stock in.

Looting: if it's a TV, it's looting. If it's someone making off with a loaf of bread or similar foor item - well actually I haven't read of that circumstance yet, anywhere.

Denis Wilson said...

Anne O'Dyne is spot on when she says: "I am now thinking of the large new housing development down in the flatlands overlooking the picturesque Campaspe. There is a damn good reason why that land has never had houses on it till the last 2 years."
The real problem is people being allowed to develop land for housing which is flood prone. That is criminal negligence, in my opinion.
Developers and Planning Authorities ought be held equally culpable.
Denis Wilson

Ampersand Duck said...

For a while now in my head I have been dreaming up a contemporary version of Dante's circles of hell, and profiteering types share a special circle with those who own airport cafes. Now I just have to work out a suitable punishment for them. Any suggestions?

skepticlawyer said...

AD: eating their own food?

Anonymous said...

Profiteering is legal in Queensland since the Wayne Goss government repealed the Profiteering Prevention Act of 1948 in 1995. Anna Bligh was a member of the Legal, Constitutional and Administrative Review Committee 15 September 1995 - 2 April 1996. I wonder which way she pushed on this law, to repeal it or to retain it? Perhaps someone should ask her.

Another Outspoken Female said...

With ABC local Queensland radio switched over to the News Radio network at time over the past few days I've caught a bit of Brisbane talkback radio on the subject. On Saturday someone rang to complain that milk was being sold for $10 a carton. The announcer got very annoyed and said frequently something about profiteers should be aware that the people they rip off have a long memory. Taking advantage of shortages and making a quick buck might be lucrative in the short term but their local customers will give them a wide berth in the long run.

On the other side of humanity - there was the owner of a small supermarket in regional SE Queensland on the news a few days ago who was giving away food and other necessities to people, letting them take what they needed.

Then there are some of the numbskulls (dare I say Gen Y's?) on twitter who keep no spare food in the house, buying what they need from meal to meal, who got a big shock that the supermarket was sold out of basics. I come from an earthquake zone, it's just second nature to have a fair amount of food, water and medication on hand to last a week or more.

...and when will people realize that milk and bread aren't actually essential foods for life??