Should You Be Hoarding? (Wendy McElroy)
Wednesday November 21st, 2012
Two news items stress the necessity of hoarding and of doing it now.
A Nov. 5 headline on NBC Connecticut announced “N.Y. Man Charged in Gas Hoarding Case” and addressed an incident from the flood zone. “According to investigators, Yunus Latif… collected money from his neighbors, bought gas at a Valero station almost 80 miles away… and planned to bring it back to his neighborhood, where they had no power and gas.” In short, people were taking care of their own needs with their own money and effort — something a free society applauds. Instead, both Latif and the owner of the gas station were arrested for violating regulations concerning flammable liquids. The real reason was an authoritarian “horror” at the very whiff of hoarding. Meanwhile, the gas was reportedly returned to underground tanks.
A Nov. 7 headline on Click Orlando (Florida) stated, “College Park Man Fights to Keep Vegetable Garden in Front Yard.” Why? Property owner Jason Helvingston is in violation of a city code requiring gardens to be planted in a “finished” manner that keeps up property values. The city ordered him to dig out the garden in a week.
In both stories, government refuses to allow people to use their own property to provide for their own needs. The situational dynamics differ.
A breakdown of the dynamics in the flood zone story:
1. A crisis interrupts the flow of necessities. The government assures people that it can supply their needs. After all, that’s what government is for.
2. It fails.
3. People provide for themselves. The private sector demonstrates that it can do what the public sector cannot. This not only slaps authority in the face, but also constitutes an argument against the need for government.
4. To mask their own incompetence and to deflect public anger, government blames shortages and other hardships on those who “hoard” or otherwise disregard government rules.
5. Government re-establishes its own necessity in the public mind by becoming the authority capable of cracking down on anti-social criminals. Government also establishes an air of competence because cracking down is something it does well.
A breakdown of the dynamics in the garden story:
1. Government regulates the minutia of people’s lives and property.
2. People who use their lives and property as they see fit are denying authority to government. In some cases, they may be denying the need for government itself.
3. Government reasserts its authority and its existence by quashing the rebellion.
The stories differ in that one occurs in a crisis while the second occurs in everyday life. But both situations shout out the same message: You need to hoard as quickly and quietly as possible.
The crisis scenario reflects the need to hoard nonperishable essentials right now, before there is a disruption that makes them scarce or otherwise difficult to purchase, for example by tripling in price overnight. Hoard quickly and now, because in a crisis, even if you manage to acquire what your family or neighborhood need, you risk being arrested as a criminal for doing so.
Historically, government has frowned upon hoarding. In an economic collapse or disaster, that frown turns into a scowl in a flash. Anti-hoarding laws are passed or miscreants are arrested under frivolous laws like transporting gasoline in unapproved containers. Again, government criminalizes hoarders not merely in order to assert its control, but also to deflect blame from the policies and inefficiencies actually responsible for empty shelves. By stirring up public resentment toward those who own one more can of peas than their neighbors, politicians avoid the full and just brunt of the anger.
The garden scenario reflects the need to hoard essentials in a quiet and private manner. Government is watching the minutia of people’s behavior down to the type and arrangement of vegetables grown in their gardens. In a time of crisis, private stockpiles of food known to exist will be confiscated for “the general good.”
There is ample historical precedent. Consider the Food and Fuel Control Act, which became law in 1917. Its official name was An Act to Provide Further for the National Security and Defense by Encouraging the Production, Conserving the Supply, and Controlling the Distribution of Food Products and Fuel. Anyone possessing more than a 30-day supply of food could have been arrested.
The May 30, 1918, New York Times carried the headline, “Navy Man Indicted for Food Hoarding.” The man had invested his wife’s inheritance in a year’s worth of food that was stored in the family home. He was arrested on $3,000 bail, which was an extraordinary sum at the time. The food was confiscated.
The Navy man’s fate is a cautionary tale about hoarding quietly. The store of food was discovered because a grocer and neighbors informed upon him. Thus, the need to hoard quietly is a sad fact. It is sad because people in a community naturally wish to assist those in need around them. Measures like the Food and Fuel Control Act, however, mean that sharing food with a neighbor’s hungry children is no longer simply a gesture of compassion; it becomes a danger to the well-being of your own children.
If you are private about hoarding and then become convinced that your neighbors are trustworthy, nothing prevents you from sharing with them. Some people may be fortunate enough to have neighbors like those of Yunus Latif, with whom they can cooperate openly. I have wondered more than once, however, even about Latif’s neighbors. What would have happened if Latif had stockpiled gas in his basement but was unwilling to share? Would the neighbors have bothered to drive 80 miles to fill their generators? Privacy would be Latif’s best and, perhaps, only defense against their need.
There is still time to hoard the items upon which your family depends. Hoard quickly, which means starting right now. The full force of inflation and the prospect of shortages are still in the future. Hoard quietly, which means not buying too much of anything at one place. It means being discreet.
Wendy McElroy is Author, lecturer, and freelance writer, and a senior associate of the Laissez Faire Club.