Sunday, June 9, 2013

Cicero on Price-Gouging

Interesting.  An ancient problem, with some ancient insights.

BOOK III. - Marcus Tullius Cicero, On Moral Duties (De Officiis), paragaph 12

12. Let it be settled, then, that what is wrong is never expedient, not even when you obtain by it what you think to be of advantage to you. Nay, the mere thinking that what is wrong is expedient is in itself a misfortune. But, as I have already said, there often occur cases of such a nature that expediency seems in conflict with the right, so that it must be ascertained by close examination whether it is really thus in conflict, or whether it can be brought into harmony with the right. Of this class are questions like the following: If, for example, a good man has brought from Alexandria to Rhodes a large cargo of corn, when there is a great scarcity and dearth at Rhodes and corn is at the highest price, — in case this man knows that a considerable number of merchants have set sail from Alexandria, and on his passage he has seen ships laden with corn bound for Rhodes, shall he give this information to the Rhodians, or shall he keep silence and sell his cargo for the most that it will bring? We are imagining the case of a wise and good man. We want to know about the thought and feeling of such a man as would not leave the Rhodians uninformed if he thinks it wrong, but who doubts whether it is wrong or not. In cases of this kind Diogenes of Babylon,1 an eminent Stoic of high authority, is wont to express one opinion, Antipater1 his pupil, a man of superior acuteness, another. According to Antipater, all things ought to be laid open, so that the buyer may be left in ignorance of nothing at all that the seller knows. According to Diogenes, the seller is bound to disclose defects in his goods so far as the law of the land requires, to transact the rest of the business without fraud, and then, since he is the seller, to sell for as much as he can get. “I have brought my cargo; I have offered it for sale; I am selling my corn for no more than others ask, perhaps even for less than they would ask, since my arrival has increased the supply. Whom do I wrong?” On the other side comes the reasoning of Antipater: “What say you? While you ought to consult the welfare of mankind and to render service to human society, and by the very condition of your being have such innate natural principles which you are bound to obey and follow, that the common good should be your good, and reciprocally yours the common good, will you conceal from men what comfort and plenty are nigh at hand for them?” Diogenes, perhaps, will reply as follows: “It is one thing to conceal, another not to tell. Nor am I now concealing anything from you, by not telling you what is the nature of the gods, or what is the supreme good, — things which it would profit you much more to know than to know the cheapness of wheat. But am I under the necessity of telling you all that it would do you good to hear?” “Yes, indeed, you are under that necessity, if you bear it in mind that nature establishes a community of interest among men.” “I do bear this in mind. But is this community of interest such that one can have nothing of his own? If it be so, everything ought, indeed, to be given, not sold.” 

So, I get there first, and sell at the "market price."  But the market price is a guess about quantity, and many more ships will be here tomorrow.  But I'm the only one who knows that.  Should I tell?  The problem for euvoluntarism is plain:  the buyers have many other possible sources of supply, but they don't know it.  If I sell, I will receive a premium for (1) bringing corn to the hungry city, (2) getting there first, and (3) having inside information.  Am I morally  obliged  to divulge (3)?

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?