Commentary / World

The ethics of shopping in a pandemic

by Stephen L. Carter

Bloomberg

When my local supermarket opened for business at 6 a.m. 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. 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. Recently an article in Wired asked why it’s right for us to protect ourselves while allowing poorly paid delivery people to risk illness.

I understand the concern, but I also believe that in an emergency it’s okay to prioritize 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, at least communicate your appreciation.

On a related point, a number of U.S. 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 labor, 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. 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 spent 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.

If, on the other hand, you think I should be forbidden to buy as much as I can find of the goods my family needs, you’re not alone. U.S. President Donald Trump recently yielded to bipartisan urging and invoked the Defense Production Act. As I’ve pointed out recently in this space, that statute can be used to limit the amount of a needed product people are allowed to keep in their homes. Yes, that could literally mean federal agents bursting into people’s homes to count bottles of hand sanitizer. I don’t think it will come to that, but the point is that the law allows the government to impose limits.

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, the state where I live and work, is furious that “bad actors” are selling hand sanitizer 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 subsidizing 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 Bloomberg Opinion columnist and a professor of law at Yale.

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