Ben Edelman, a rather well-noted Harvard Business School professor, had this fascinating exchange with a local Szechuan restaurant:
“Is Prof. Edelman’s conduct ethical?”
As you might expect, the overwhelming majority of opinion on social media and on various websites is that Edelson is a pompous, Ivy League, bullying jerk. Edelman’s fellow professor, law professor Ann Althouse, takes his side, however:
If a business systematically overcharges everyone but give a refund and only a refund to any customer who: 1. Notices and 2. Confronts, there’s no disincentive. This is why class actions were invented. You can make a lot of money taking small amounts from a lot of people. The remedy needs to be more than the small amount that gives back what you took from only one person. I think this reality is hard to see because a Harvard professor is such a ripe target, and his tenaciousness in making his point is so unusual and so displayable on line…The most interesting sentence in the correspondence between the professor and the restauranteur is: “The more you try to claim your restaurant was not at fault, the more determined I am to seek a greater sanction against you.”
Even where the customer noticed and confronted, this restauranteur’s first move was to say only that the website was “out of date for quite some time” and he’d “make sure to update it.” I think many customers would simply back off and say something like “Thanks, I’m glad I could help you, and by the way, I really do love your restaurant.” The professor teaches the law here, and there is a Massachusetts law that makes it “a serious violation to advertise one price and charge a different price.” Do we believe in this kind of law or don’t we? If we don’t and we think the professor is a prick for being a stickler about it, then get rid of the law and stop burdening business owners with the appearance that there are rules that must be followed.
Do we believe in this kind of law? Sure. I also believe small businesses are regulated to death, that keeping websites up to date is a chore that defeats many restaurants, that the law, like many such laws, predates the internet and was more reasonable when an owner could easily correct a price himself, and that a rational law enforcement official is going to respond to a four dollar over-charge with “don’t do this again,” and not a formal charge. Absent evidence that the restaurant was intentionally gauging customers (some of Althouse’s commenters seem to assume this), what a kind, compassionate, fair, reasonable, customer would do is explain why the online menu needs to be keep up to date, accept a reasonable accommodation by the owner, and check later to see if proper corrective measures have been taken. If not, then his enforcement measures would be fair and dictated by principles of responsible citizenship.
But Edleman is obviously not kind, compassionate, fair, and reasonable; nor does he endorse the Golden Rule. He is an officious jerk and a bully, and deserves every bit of criticism being hurled his way. His conduct was akin to, say, gang-tackling a guy for selling loose cigarettes in Staten Island, and choking him in the process.
I also have this thought, as Edleman’s bio suggest that he is, like most denizens of John Harvard’s legacy, a reflex-progressive. I wonder if he excuses illegal immigrants and believes their illegal transgressions should be ignored on grounds of compassion. I’m betting he does,