Profiteering. Where the Guilt Lies

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Profiteering. Where the Guilt Lies is a letter written by Arthur Conan Doyle first published in The Times on 9 july 1919.



The Times (9 july 1919)




Sir, - Unless something is done quickly, and done thoroughly, to check rising prices in the necessaries of life, there will be violence in this country. Man must live, and these wicked prices are making it a hard matter.

What are our rulers about, and why are they tacitly protecting a handful of profiteers to the danger of the nation ? The men who are making fortunes out of the needs of the people are net very numerous, they are not difficult to find, a very little examination would establish their guilt, and if there is no law adequately to punish them, then it is a reproach to our law-makers that such a law should not exist. Let it be passed and most rigorously enacted. A dozen cases of extreme punishment would work a wondrous change.

I will take an illustration of the present monstrous condition of affairs. I have some first-hand evidence of the condition of that market-garden industry which supplies London with most of its vegetables. The cabbage or lettuce which is bought from the market gardener (who conveys it to Covent Garden) at 1d. or 1 1/2d., is sold in the shops at an average of from 8d. to 1s. Occasionally it passes 1s., for there is no limit to the conscienceless greed. Now only two people have handled that vegetable since she grower received his very reasonable price, which would be lower were it not that every expense which he bears, from his labour to his petrol, has greatly increased. He is guiltless in the matter. The guilt lies between the wholesale dealer who buys the consignment at 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning at Covent Garden or other market, and the retailer who comes to buy it from the wholesale dealer at some later hour. Between them although they do nothing but handle what others by their work and care have produced, they increase the price at least four – and often six or eight-fold.

The worst case seems to be the wholesale dealer, because as he is handling very large quantities, and only has them for a few hours, one would expect that some very trifling charge upon each vegetable would still give him a considerable profit. Far, however, from his charge being trifling, he gets more, and often much more, on each cabbage or lettuce than the original grower who has taken all the risk and shown all the skill. What the wholesale dealer buys at 1d. or 1 1/2d., he passes on again at 3d. or 4d. That, as it seems to me, is the root of the evil. The shopkeeper may be, and often is, a criminal also in this matter, but at least he does take some risk with a perishable stock and an uncertain demand. But for these huge profits of the middlemen, who must all be on the way to great wealth, there can be no excuse whatever. If they plead that their expenses at Covent Garden cause this inflation, then Covent Garden should itself be abolished and a Government market established. Government has many men available from the Army supply services who are quite competent to handle large commercial matters. I suggest that by the use of such men the middleman's absence in gaol might be successfully tided over, and a better system inaugurated. A few clean-run British officers with plenary powers would very soon set things right.

Meanwhile three matters press. The first is to decree heavy punishment for anyone who destroys food, as is done in some cases in order to keep up prices. A second is to punish in the same way anyone who sets up any impediment to the circulation of marketable goods. Attempts at reform have sometimes been discouraged by the complete disappearance of the goods concerned, and the public is tempted to say, "There is the consequence of interfering with supply and demand." It is much more likely to be the consequence of interference with illicit profits, and an attempt to bully the public into tamely submitting to extortion. The third and most important thing is to define what is a fair profit, in the case both of middleman and of retailer, and to clap the offenders into gaol. The recent fines of a few shillings are rather an incentive to crime than a deterrent.

Yours faithfully,

Windlesham, Crowborough, Sussex.