Hoarding in Corona Times

Hoarding puts YOU at Risk!

Let’s start with famines.

Famines can be thought of either as natural disasters exacerbated by human greed and ideology or human-made disasters exacerbated by nature. We can’t control nature but we can control what we do and typically, we morally fail as a species. Species-preservation — perhaps an instinct- can be overcome with human venality and greed. In this sense, to be “human” is an insult and to be “animalistic” is in fact a compliment. I know of no species other than our own that purposely and purposefully creates scarcity of food in order to starve others of the same species into submission.

Famines have many roots, of that there is no doubt. Mother Nature can play a role; the mechanics of price and of “markets” plays a role; hoarding plays a role; and political process and ideology play a role too. Famines can be tools of policy or simply its handmaidens. No peoples know this better than the Chinese and Indians, the latter of which suffered regular famines under the British. Interestingly, and misleadingly, much of the literature on famines in India emphasizes hoarding as the culprit versus deliberate British economic policy and what Mike Davis refers to as the “theological application” of British policy.

Hoarding is an interesting concept and one that has a curious logic, often misapplied. And, with all due respect to the hundreds of millions of people who have perished as a result of our species’ bloodlust, it is hoarding that I want to discuss for the remainder of this small essay.

Hoarding is almost always about greed and about hierarchy. The greed-angle is obvious- If I control vast amounts of a quantity people need, I can command either a lot of money, power, or both. The hierarchy-angle is too- hoarding is often the result of a clear prioritization of people, a ranking of whose lives matter more. In the Bengal Famine- Churchill to be blamed here- the government of India hoarded food to feed its army as millions lay dying in Bengal’s cities and hamlets. That is merely one example.

At some level, hoarding is logical. If one is unconcerned about the lives of anyone but family and loved ones, then hoarding is logical- you live while others die. Hell, you even live comfortably while others die. Such, you can argue, is divine law- might makes right. Surely, the logic breaks down when the dying is at a scale in which the entire economy and all of society ceases to function because such events have blowback effects on everyone, even the elite. That said, in the short-term, as sickening as it is, hoarding is a “rational” approach to famine.

Is hoarding a rational approach to other calamities? Take for instance, the notion of hoarding during the Covid-19 pandemic. The news is littered with stories of people buying up hand-sanitizer and other highly useful materials. We also witness tale after tale of toilet paper hoarding. The human desire to protect-the-self and profit continues unabated even as we mouth pieties about community and empathy. Stores and ecommerce sites are rationing Covid-19 related materials in response to this run on important items.

There is so much to comment on here. Let’s start with the obvious and then return to the main point of this essay. Crisis times bring into bold relief how markets work not for but against public good. In a purely “market” society, why should a store ration supplies, limit buying to X number of items, or take any measure at all to regulate the purchase of goods. In “logical” terms, it is in fact bad business. Rationing requires extra effort by personnel, creation of a system of distribution, and keeps materials on the shelf for longer than a “normal” situation. Rationing is in fact “bad business.”

This “obvious” point connects us to the other aforementioned themes. Revisiting the idea of hoarding- there are in fact two discrete sets of scenarios that point in fact in opposite directions on the matter of hoarding. As we discussed earlier, if the only consideration is the immediate nutrition/health of one’s own family, then hoarding food during a famine can be thought of as logical. In the case of Covid-19, however, hoarding medical goods, Personal Protection Equipment, even hand sanitizer is illogical even if all one is concerned with is one’s own family’s health.

Others starving does not increase the likelihood that you will starve. Others carrying Covid-19, on the contrary, does increase the likelihood that you will contract the virus. When it comes to communicable disease, we are, quite literally, all part of one large organism.

Clearly, hoarding of anything during times of crisis is morally repugnant, but even for the most die-hard Randians amongst us, hoarding during the Covid-19 pandemic is simply stupid and ultimately self-defeating.

If we cannot appeal to human decency or even self-interest then what can we appeal to?



Romi Mahajan in an Author, Marketer, Investor, and Activist

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