‘After the Storm Come the Vultures’ – Justice in Times of Crisis

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Justice. Freedom. Equality. Three pillars upon which we have established and nurtured the roots of civilisation. Three pillars which are worshipped as almost ‘divine providence’, and as the vigils that safeguard the basic rights afforded to humanity. The Law serves as the embodiment of human reason, and is perhaps mankind’s greatest innovation, which protects, upholds and maintains these bastions of society. And it is the Law which yanks at the reigns of human gluttony and greed, that would happily rule in chaos, to serve as detrimental forces against society’s wellbeing. It is the buffer which keeps in check the darker sides of human nature that emerge in times of crisis, such as in Florida, in the year of 2004.

In Orlando, $2 bags of ice were selling for as much as $10. Contractors were charging as much as  $23,000  to remove trees from people’s homes, an extortionate amount. Stores that sold small $250 generators, were now selling at a ridiculous $2000 price tag. This was the aftermath of Hurricane Charley, which swept out of the Gulf of Mexico at 240 km/hr speeds, and across the state of Florida, claiming 22 lives and leaving behind $11 billion of destruction. This was one of the most powerful hurricanes to hit the United States, and in its wake, it brought out the uglier sides of humanity.

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A family consisting of a 77 year old woman, her partner and their disabled daughter, fled the dreadful ‘Act of God’, as some would call it, and sought refuge within the confines of a motel room, so that they may rest their tormented minds. Yet, upon their arrival, they were slapped with an excessive price of $160 for a single night, when usually the motel would charge a fee of only $40. It is unfortunate that the first wave of opportunistic price gouging began here, with the hospitality industry overcharging their customers, who were essentially fleeing the approaching natural disaster. The New York Times reported that a Mr Kleppach, who eventually filed a lawsuit, ‘saw a sign at the Days Inn Airport Hotel reading, ‘ALL ROOMS – $39.99.’ There were two rooms left. But the price, Mr. Kleppach said, was $109.00. ‘I was desperate and needed shelter for my family,’ he said, ‘so I took the room for that price.’’

These chain of events angered thousands of Floridians, and the state’s Attorney General shared the opinion of the people and stated, ‘It is astounding to me, the level of greed that someone must have in their soul to be willing to take advantage of someone suffering in the wake of a hurricane.’ His office received an excess of 1400 complaints, laying claim to events of being overcharged in the time of crisis. Florida’s response was to issue teams to discourage these extortionate events of extreme price gouging, whilst promoting the word of the Law, which imposed a penalty of $1000 for each case, and a penalty of up to $15,000 in cases of fraudulent practices of business. In West Palm Beach, a Days Inn was forced to pay $70,000 in penalties and reparations for their role in setting ‘unjust prices’.

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Then Attorney General, Charlie Crist

However, this sparked debate amongst economists who boldly ventured to state that the Law was incorrect. In today’s society, the majority of markets are ruled by factors such as supply and demand, where the value placed on commodities is governed by their interactions. And as a result, economists like Thomas Sowell, rejected the idea of an ‘unjust price’, and referred to price gouging as a worthless economic expression, due to its emotional value in the place of true, economic meaning. He argued that the prices that were churned out by the hurricane, were neither fair or unjust, for they simply reflected the interaction of the free markets, which was supported by both parties of exchange, and added that higher prices of certain goods, actually led to producers sourcing higher quantities due to the financial benefits that were up for grabs.

In response to these arguments posed by free market economists, who frowned upon the idea of intervention within the free market, due to the potential of its negative consequences, Attorney General Crist defended the Law in the Tampa paper by stating, ‘In times of emergency, government cannot remain on the sidelines while people are charged unconscionable prices as they flee for their lives or seek basic commodities for their families after a hurricane’. The future governor posed the argument that the exchange that was taking place, was not truly a free one, as buyers did not have any such liberty, as ‘buyers under duress have no freedom. Their purchases of necessities like safe lodging are forced.’

This entire chain of events creates and poses an interesting idea to any reader analysing the situation. Is it correct for the Law to play a part in preventing the so called ‘free’ market interactions during periods of sate/national emergency, when it is clear that people are not capable of fully exercising their rights? Should the Law block any sellers attempting to take advantage of such situations and occurrences?

The truth is that people are simply outraged by monsters taking advantage of others, and preying upon the weak. And this outrage, this angst at immoral acts, should be taken seriously, even though we attempt to remove all forms of emotion from most logical arguments and theses. What it does is condemn greed, gluttony and selfishness as vices that should be banished from all corners of society. A moral force which condones these acts, must logically lead to a better society, for it limits acts of avarice, thus promoting a betterment in social welfare. Yes, it is true that market forces must have little to no interference from governing bodies, but it seems as though the Law, and the forces which guard its statutes, must act in times of crises and uphold the values which we prescribe on ourselves. That is where we may find the moral high ground. That is where we find justice.


References

  1. Michael McCarthy, “After Storm Come the Vultures”, USA Today, August 20, 2004, p. 6B
  2. Joseph B. Treaster, “HURRICANE CHARLEY: THE ECONOMICS; With Storm Gone, Floridians Are Hit With Price Gouging,” The New York Times, Aug. 18, 2004
  3. Michael J. Sandel, “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?,” 2009

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