When my local supermarket opened for business at 6am the other day, I had my plan of action in place. The instant the door was unlocked, I hurried to the pharmacy aisle, where I found, to my surprise and delight, three bottles of rubbing alcohol.
But now I faced a puzzle. Should I play homo economicus and buy them all? Should I follow the Lockean proviso and leave as much and as good in common for others? Torn by competing priorities, I bought two of the three bottles, leaving the third for the next customer. Did I do wrong? I’m not sure. Shopping is tricky these days.
The question of how much to take and how much to leave is only one obvious ethical challenge we face as we navigate shopping during the present crisis. There are plenty of others.
Am I overdoing it? Maybe. Or maybe I’m just responding rationally to the increasingly hysterical “news” about the coronavirus.
For example, many consumers who are sheltering in place have come to start depending on deliveries for food and other household items. Experts are of the view that having food delivered is safer than risking a trip to the store --safer, that is, for the person placing the order.
But the buyer’s safety is earned by transferring the risk to the person making the delivery. Earlier this month, an article asked why it’s right for us to protect ourselves while allowing poorly paid delivery people to risk illness or worse. Intriguing online arguments ensued.
I understand the concern, but I also believe that in an emergency it’s OK to prioritise your safety and your family’s. It’s true that people who bring to our doors the food or cleaning products we want are taking risks we ourselves are trying to avoid. They’re also trying to keep their paying jobs. If you think they’re being insufficiently compensated, tip as lavishly as you can. If can’t afford to tip lavishly, at least communicate your appreciation.
On a related point, a number of US business have committed to paying their vendors immediately rather than waiting the usual 30 to 45 days, in order to help smaller businesses stay afloat and pay their employees. If you employ household labour, even a guy who trims your hedges or plows your driveway -- and if your household balance sheet permits -- consider doing the same.
Now let’s get back to my recent shopping trip. In addition to the two bottles of alcohol, I was able to buy three containers of disinfectant wipes (the limit per customer), along with several other useful items the store had restocked during the night.
Roaming store to store
Apparently, this makes me a hoarder, although I was already the sort who believed that anything worth buying is worth buying four of. Now our cupboards and closets and countertops overflow with the fruits of my many hours spend roaming from store to store.
Am I overdoing it? Maybe. Or maybe I’m just responding rationally to the increasingly hysterical “news” about the coronavirus. Television talking heads keep telling us that the emergency could continue for months. It’s hard to then fault people for responding to such dire predictions by buying everything in sight.
Finally, let’s remember why shelves are so empty. It’s not because people are buying too much. It’s because the goods that are in demand are too cheap. If you’re upset that your local store is sold out of all the things you want, don’t blame your fellow consumers. Blame our aversion to letting prices rise to meet demand.
The attorney general of Connecticut, for instance, is furious that “bad actors” are selling hand sanitiser and toilet paper at prices he thinks are too high. But as I’ve been arguing since the crisis was young, at higher prices we’d see fuller shelves. People would buy smaller quantities; and new sellers would be enticed into the market.
If you’re worried that disinfectant wipes will be too expensive for the poor, I’m all for subsidising their purchases. But let’s by all means let the prices rise to help keep more goods on the shelves. Even if you think the main problem is not production but distribution, higher prices would mean an incentive to clean up those channels fast.
Even in an emergency, incentives matter.
Stephen L. Carter is a columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University
(c) 2020 Bloomberg L.P.
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