The Principles of Political Economy

Henry Sidgwick

Book III

Chapter IX


§2. Let us now consider the question that arises when we try to define the moral coercion or undue pressure that renders a contract unfair: viz. How far A may legitimately take advantage of the urgent need of B to raise the price of a commodity sold to the latter, supposing that he is in no way responsible for this urgent need? The question is one, I think, of considerable practical perplexity to ordinary minds; and it requires some care in distinction and analysis of cases to give even a tolerably satisfactory answer to it. In the first place, where B is under the pressure of exceptional and sudden emergency, in which A has a special opportunity of rendering assistance, while the need is so urgent that there is no room for competition to operate, it seems certain that A would be generally blamed for exacting for his service the full price which it is B's interest to pay: and this would not only be true in cases of danger to life or health, where humanity seems more obviously to dictate unbargained assistance, but even where it is a mere question of saving property. For instance we should consider it extortionate in a boatman, who happened to be the only man able to save valuable works of art from being lost in a river, to demand for his services a reward manifestly beyond their normal price: that is, beyond the price which, under ordinary circumstances, competition would determine at that time and place. Still, it is by no means clear that such extortion is ``contrary to the principles of Political Economy'' as ordinarily understood. Economists assume in their scientific discussions---frequently with more or less implied approval of the conduct assumed---that every enlightened person will try to sell his commodity in the dearest market: and the dearest market is, ceteris paribus, wherever the need for such commodity is greatest. If therefore, the need of a single individual is specially great, why should not the price demanded from him rise proportionally? It appears to me that it is just at this point that there is a palpable divergence between the mere abstract exposition of the results of natural liberty which deductive economic science professes to give, and the general justification of natural liberty which Political Economy is traditionally held to include, and upon which its practical influence largely depends. Enlightened self-interest, under the circumstances supposed, will prompt a man to ask as much as he can get: but in the argument that shows the play of self-interests to lead to just and expedient results it is assumed that open competition will prevent any individual from raising his price materially above what is required for a due reduction of the demand. The price as thus determined competitively in an ideal market presents itself as the fair and---generally speaking---morally right price, because it is obviously an economic gain that the supply of any commodity should be transferred to the persons who value it most and primâ facie just that all suppliers of similar commodities should be paid the same. In exacting as much as this, the self-interest of the seller seems to be working as a necessary factor in the realization of the economic harmony of society; but any further exaction which an accidental absence of competition may render possible shows egoism anarchical and discordant, and therefore no longer under the ægis of economic morality. Such exaction could only avoid moral disapprobation if the exceptional freedom from competition, of which the seller takes advantage, were due to foresight on his part which it is for the general interest to encourage: but this case, I imagine, is rare.

The conclusion, on the whole, would seem to be that while it is generally extortionate in an individual to take advantage of the exceptional need of any other individual to drive a bargain with him on harder terms than he could obtain if competition were effectively open, it is not generally unfair for a class of persons to gain competitively by the unfavourable economic situation of any class with which they deal;---at least when this situation is not due to sudden calamity incapable of being foreseen, but to the gradual action of general causes, for the existence of which the persons who gain are not specially responsible. If such causes diminish seriously the social value of the services of any class, some change in their industrial position is undoubtedly required in the interests of the community; but the corresponding diminution of their remuneration is a natural method of bringing about this change,---a method which, though painful, is so manifestly efficacious that morality hesitates to interfere with it by censuring the persons whose self-interest prompts its application. In extreme cases, indeed, as where labour is remunerated at a rate insufficient to provide the necessaries of life without an exhausting amount of toil, strong censure is unhesitatingly passed by the common moral sentiment of the community. It seems, however, doubtful how far this censure, as it is usually applied, can be justified on reflection. For if persons who buy or sell to the poorest class are blamed as immoral for buying labour or selling house-room or other commodities at the market-price, there is a serious danger that such censure, while it will not prevent these necessary trades from being carried on, will tend to keep them in the hands of persons of low morality, and thus indirectly aggravate instead of mitigating the distress which gives rise to the censure. At any rate if we condemn ``sweaters'', slop-shop dealers, and other small traders who ``grind the faces'' of the poor by taking full advantage of competition, it should be rather for want of benevolence than for want of justice; and the condemnation should be extended to other persons of wealth and leisure who are aware of this disease of the social organism and are making no efforts to remove it. That such efforts ought to be made is undeniable: but the exact form that they will take if most wisely directed must depend upon the particular conditions of the labourers in question.

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