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Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do

In the first chapter of his book Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do, Harvard political philosopher Michael J Sandel writes of Thomas Sowell's response to the issue of merchants in Florida raising prices following Hurricane Charley in the summer of 2004. Thomas Sowell is a syndicated columnist, political philosopher and Senior Fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. According to Sandel, Sowell, in the Tampa Tribune, sought to explain "how 'price gouging' helps Floridians." Sandel describes Sowell as arguing that higher prices have the advantage of limiting the use of things in times of scarcity and motivating suppliers to rush in with their offerings to get in on the higher prices. It's the supply-demand dynamic that with competition is supposed to encourage sellers to lower their prices.

Sowell was not alone. Sandel writes of Jeff Jacoby writing in the Boston Globe that "It isn't gouging to charge what the market will bear... It's how goods and services get allocated in a free society."

Sandel writes:

The debate about price gouging that arose in the aftermath of Hurricane Charley raises hard questions of morality and law: Is it wrong for sellers of goods and services to take advantage of a natural disaster by charging whatever the market will bear?

Sandel writes of many Floridians offended by inflated prices. Among the offended was Florida's attorney general and future governor, Charlie Crist. Crist wrote in an op-ed piece published in the Tampa Tribune:

This is not the normal free market situation where willing buyers freely elect to enter into the marketplace and meet willing sellers, where a price is agreed upon based on supply and demand. In an emergency, buyers under duress have no freedom. Their purchases of necessities like safe lodge are forced. (Tampa Tribune, 14 Sep 2004, p 17)

Sandel describes a 77-year-old woman fleeing the hurricane with her elderly husband and handicapped daughter paying $160 per night for a motel room that normally goes for $40, generators selling for $2,000 that normally sell for $250, and the selling of two-dollar bags of ice for ten dollars to people needing to save food in their refrigerators.

It is normal for people with some sense of human decency to find repugnant anyone asking for money from someone before helping him to his feet or before calling an ambulance. This same repugnance is felt by people who apply such greed to businessmen taking advantage of people during an emergency such as a hurricane. Sandel dared to ask whether the state should "prohibit price gouging, even if doing so interferes with the freedom of buyers and sellers to make whatever deals they choose."

The state of Florida had such a law, and the attorney general's office received more than two thousand complaints. Sandel writes that some resulted in successful lawsuits, including a Days Inn that had to pay $70,000 in penalties and restitution. But free market purists complained.

The law is recognized as temporary in nature. It gives the state flexibility to respond to an unusual circumstance. But the opponents of the state law want no bending of their free market formula to emergency situations and what many think of as matters of human decency.

In his book Justice, Sandel doesn't mention Adam Smith, the philosopher who wrote The Wealth of Nations in the late 1700s and today's free market enthusiasts respect. But like Sandel, Smith considered the operation of human sympathy in social interactions. In his The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he wrote:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it." (Part One, 1.1.1)

At Amazon.com, Sandel has 230 reviews of his book, published in 2009 – a good number considering it's a philosophy book. (Wittgenstein's best number is 41.) Three people give the book one star. One of the latter writes that "maybe 'justice' is a utopian aspiration," suggesting maybe it's something practical people should ignore. Another writes that "Sandel's book essentially makes the case for elitists control," and he adds that "like Maximilian Robespierre and other tyrants Sandel chooses virtue" – in other words, considering virtue puts people on a path to evil. One of the 56 who gave the book four stars writes: "his is a great book for people like me who did not study philosophy and have come to realize the need to have larger conversations in order to make better political arguments."

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