Samosa Ethics: Externalities and the Ethics of Small Matters

Business ethics isn’t always about multinational corporations, high-stakes finance, and multi-million dollar lawsuits. This story is sort of a tempest-in-a-teapot compared to big stories like Enron, but I think it usefully illustrates some interesting points:

Here’s the story, from CBC news, about the Samosa stall at a farmer’s market in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

Fredericton’s four-week samosa drought ended Saturday when Samosa Delite reopened at its usual location at the Boyce Farmers’ Market.
But the popular vendor will move outside to a trailer in the parking lot in two weeks.
For the first time in 30 years, there had been no samosas available at the market Saturday mornings as the treats became a victim of their own popularity. Lineups clogged the market’s walkways, obstructing stalls belonging to other vendors and causing market officials last month to ask the two samosa vendors in the market, Samosa Delite and Patel’s, to move to an outdoor food court.

So, a few random observations:

1) This is a classic, small-time example of “externalities.” Third parties (other vendors) were suffering negative consequences of the simple market transactions being conducted at the samosa stall. Crowding is a form of pollution. Samosa Delite was able to “externalize” that pollution, extruding it into public space. It would be hard (though not, I think, impossible) to measure this negative externality and have Samosa Delite compensate the owners of adjacent stalls.

2) Notice the complexity of the interests involved…other vendors were being affected (negatively) by the lineup for samosas, but presumably they also benefited from the additional foot traffic near their stalls.

3) Notice that Samosa Delite was apparently unwilling to act on its own to limit the effect its business had on others. (Question: how much negative impact — measured how? — would Samosa Delight have to have before it would have been morally obligatory for them to do something to mitigate their own impact? What could/should they have done?)

4) Notice also the (for better or for worse) authoritarian solution: the managers of the market forced Samosa Delite to switch locations.

5) Notice (perhaps most importantly) that this ethical issue probably has nothing to do with wrongdoing. Too often businesses think that ethics is all about avoiding wrongdoing. But the owner of Samosa Delight was likely just trying to make an honest living, serve his customers well, keep his employees employed, etc. Nonetheless, his interests conflicted with those of people around him, and so something had to give. The point is that identifying this as an ethically interesting case doesn’t immediately mean that anyone did anything wrong.

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