Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Ethics of Hoarding

O.k., I am not a survivalist. However, I do have a few gallons of water and a big bag of rice stuck in the back of the closet. And a tastefully substantial amount of ammo. Anyway, Johnny Quest gives me occasional grief for this, and we joke about this stuff being for "the fall of Western civilization."

Now, there's been a good bit of talk of late about a likely pandemic (bird flu or whatever), and I've wondered whether I should get more serious about laying in supplies--in particular since I only get about four hours of sleep per night and, as a result, catch a bad case of almost everything that comes around.

Anyway, what's there to lose? It's not like having extra granola bars around is going to hurt anything. They'll be eaten--one way or another--sooner or later.

But here's a question that's puzzled me ever since I was a kid: what's "hoarding," and why, exactly, is it alleged to be wrong? In the movies when food is scarce and one family is found to have a substantial store of it, they are accused of "hoarding," and this seems to give everybody else license to break into their house and steal it.

Now, I'm a person who's inclined to be rather more altruistic than most, and I don't think it's crazy to think that, under such conditions, food should be shared equally. However, it's far from clear that that's what morality demands. It seems just as reasonable to think that those who have prepared in advance deserve to reap the benefits of their foresight.

I mean, suppose I can't pay my rent. Suppose also that my neighbor has had the foresight to save his money diligently, and has plenty. Can I accuse him of "hoarding money," break into his house and take what I need? No. So why do things change if he's had the foresight to lay in a supply of food and I haven't?

So what about it? If Smith has saved some food and Jones has not--though he had the opportunity to do so--is Smith obligated to share his food with Jones? If so, does he have to share it 50-50? Or what?

I can't even come close to figuring this one out.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The notion derives from resource limited societies where saving led to material reduction of survivability in the present. The whole social group vs lone survival strategy depends on a transparent allocation scheme and sanction of cheaters. While not generally applicable to the over abundent suburban life style, think plane crash in a remote area. Your likelyhood of survival on your own is small, dispite the advantage of a box of power bars. The moral issue is taking the water finding, shelter making, first aid resources of others while "hoarding" your calorie resource.

10:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are two sorts of hoarding scenarios, and it seems to me pretty important not to confuse them when making the moral judgment.

The first is life boat/bomb shelter type scenario in which there is a strictly limited supply of some critical good - food or space in the shelter. In this kind of situation, any sharing you do from your hoard will reduce your chances of survival. (The "hoard" might not even be sharable, if it is something like space in you and Johny Quest's two-person bomb shelter.) In a case like this, if you have justly aquired the good, you are well within your rights to use it only for your benefit. Especialy if the reason you have the hoard is owing to your good planning, and others had every opportunity to do the same is did not.

However, most of the time, when you see on the news that people are going after hoarders, you are not seeing anything like a true lifeboat situation, but an ugly kind of speculative bubble. Take the cases in Niger: It's not as though grain merchants in the country needed all the grain they had to survive. It's just that the bad harvest made for a spike in prices, and the temporary high prices made it seem like a good idea to hold onto grain in the hopes that prices would increase further. A hoard of grain here is just an attempt to realize extra profit, and one which, like all speculative bubbles, gives further incentive to hold on to the good, since the hoarding further restricts the supply. The resulting price spiral and chrash is familiar. The good that the grain hoarder realizes far inferior to that which would be realized by those who need grain - triple prices for one vs. continued life for the other. Participation in a free market it seems to me restricts our property rights when those would be used to manipulate prices in this way, especially since such hoarding can only really be succesful where there are monopolies or collusion, and more especially at the cost of lives. The extra nasty part of such situations is that, like most speculators, hoarders rarely sell until after demand has begun to crash. When the good is critical, like food, demand only crashes when enough people have died or left. So not only do many starve in a state artificial famine, those that provoke the famine end up bankrupting themselves in the process by holding only food until there are few left to buy it. In a situation like this, the state should step in to force sale at normal prices, or prick the bubble by importing the good. If the state cannot or will not, people are clearly within their rights to take what they need.

6:19 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Nice, Bob. Thanks.

Incidentally, on a different sub-topic, it has been suggested to me, in private correspondence, that laying in emergency supplies--as opposed to hoarding--is not only permissible but is, in fact, our civic duty.

9:09 AM  
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