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Would you sell a used car to Ralph Nader?

November 14, 2013

The answer has to be “No! Are you crazy!  If something went wrong, I would have to make it right and would even that satisty him.”  But, would you sell the car to a poor person?  Hmmm……  Quite a different question.

Think about it.  What could happen?  The poor are ready targets for poor products and other illegal activity.  Why?  Exactly because they do not have the ready means to resist or correct such conduct. 

The lack of resources to go to court or to defend oneself in court, of course, results in a failure of justice in the individual case.  But, the lack of access of the poor to the courts has bad consequences in addition to the failure to achieve justice in the individual case. 

It removes deterrence.   It creates a different market norm. The establishment of a deterrent is one of the basic aims of any justice system.  If one is facing damages for breaches of contracts, one’s competitors in the area of commerce concerned will try to conform one’s behavior to the terms of the contract in order to avoid bad being sued.  A norm in that specific market is thus  established that one had better adhere to. 

In the absence of a real deterrent in that market many will behave differently than they would otherwise have behaved. This is generally true in all settings, not just regarding contracts.   For example, if landlords doing business in residential housing think that they will rarely be sued, they will more likely neglect their legal duties as landlords in regard to the tenants.  Landlord duties like code compliance and provision of heat in the winter costs money.  Avoiding some of those costs means that overall  costs go down and  profits go up.   Thus, a lower norm of behavior is established in the landlord-tenant market.  The same, of course, would be true for our car seller in regard to consumer rights, or  rights of workers in the workplace, or debtors’ rights.   Thus,  salespeople, employers, and creditors can see whether  the  other party, that is,   consumers, employees, and debtors  lack access to courts to compel compliance with their rights.  If that weakness is seen, they present a watered down deterrence.  This results in a different market norm.

Poor people occupy a unique position.  Simply being poor sends a message to their potential adversaries   that they are without the power to enforce their rights—not just as tenants, consumers, employees, and debtors—–but as persons.  One may violate their rights without fearing unpleasant consequences.   They are truly second class citizens living in a different legal world.

If you sold used cars, to whom would you rather sell: a poor person or Ralph Nader?




And so, it can be easily seen that the use of wealth as the factor to distribute limited justice resources has a very undesirable social effect: it does not simply limit the ability of the poor to defend themselves or limit their ability to file actions against those who  engage in illegal behavior  against them.   It actually increases the amount of illegal behavior that will be engaged in against them.


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