March 8, 2014
After such a turbulent January, stern government action on the price front along the lines of the “Taking care of prices” policy is absolutely necessary — as the opposition always insists, you cannot devalue without an anti-inflation plan — but “care” should always be the operative word and the bill of Senator Aníbal Fernández to enable fines to be slapped on offending retailers ahead of any recourse to justice seems a distinctly careless initiative opening up a potential Pandora’s box. If there were grounds to trust blindly in the integrity of a professional civil service, this new state prerogative might serve some purpose but with corruption such a huge issue in Argentina, empowering inspectors and officials to fine at will seems to be inviting open season for arbitrary abuse, extortion and bribery — the local saying “Every law has its loophole” can all too often be extended to its own source of illicit gain.
Rather than this new opening for corruption, the situation calls not for sidelining the law but rather for more and better justice — courts specifically dedicated to consumer protection backed by strong laws to defend the citizenry against price abuse seem the only way of ensuring the necessary care. Quite apart from the danger of dishonest inspectors, there are other reasons for fearing injustice if fines can only be appealed retroactively after being paid, as stipulated by the Fernández bill (especially with a notoriously foot-dragging state when it comes to compensation). Automatically condemning all price lurches as speculative abuse is too sweeping a generalization — very often it will be valid but there will always be cases of genuine victims of devaluation, the wholesaler or middleman at fault rather than the retailer, rainfall and/or bad roads in the case of beef and umpteen other excuses, some more valid than others. The economic team is also on tricky ground when it seeks to punish retailers for lacking goods as well as excessive prices — are they then also to blame for waves of panic buying and mass hoarding (here President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner may have been wrong in siding with a housewife against a supermarket seeking to limit her purchases)?
Yet fears of these possible injustices can in no way cripple the state against protecting the consumer — on the contrary, it only strengthens the case for consumer courts because case-by-case study means that the injustices can be minimized while defending the ordinary citizen with the full force of the law (and not just special interests with injunctions, as so often in current court practice).