Friday Rant: eBay and Craig's List – Pure Markets & The Beastly Public

I love bargains and am somewhat addicted to forums like eBay and Craig's List. They're largely on-line yard sales but it's also possible to eek out great deals on new stuff from wholesalers who specialize in overstock and discontinued items, to people who compulsively buy things and never use them. They're also a great place to save on sales tax – for now – in that it's only collected on eBay from sellers who ship from the buyer's home state. But I've recently received a number of items that are DOA (Dead-on-arrival) and the experience is giving me pause.

I've found myself mumbling that the public is a beast. A paraphrase of Voltaire's "The public is a ferocious beast. One must either chain it up or flee from it." François-Marie Arouet, 21 November 1694 – 30 May 1778), better known by the pen name Voltaire "wrote more than 20,000 letters and more than 2,000 books and pamphlets" according to Wikipedia. Ironically, "he was an outspoken supporter of social reform [and] one of several Enlightenment figures ... whose works and ideas influenced important thinkers of both the American and French Revolutions."

More specifically and back to the point, I've mostly purchased audiophile gear: phono cartridges (the thing that translates sound from vinyl records) -- far superior to most CDs and compressed ipod downloads by the way -- as well as speakers, preamplifiers and other components with which to perfect my audio passions. I've received speaker cabinets without speakers, phono cartridges with a broken stylus and other stuff that simply just doesn't work. Interestingly, the sellers have been very amenable to refunding the purchase price so long as the item is returned. Which begs the question: "Why sell something that doesn't work?"

The answer is stupidly clear. Seller's of faulty goods invariably claim that they're not experts and can't be expected to know the condition of the item. I don't agree of course, but I believe they're sincere in a kind of twisted way. The bigger issue is that these sellers believe it's okay to throw a bunch of things out there and hope that most of it sticks. This behavior is a microcosmic example of how way too many people not only deflect accountability for their behavior, but don't believe they have any to begin with. We don't hesitate to rail against contaminated toys, food products and the like from global producers, yet the same irresponsible lack of ethic is alive and well among the U.S. citizenry.

Granted -- and thankfully -- these shoddy merchants are not a majority, but they do seem to be increasing in number within my small sampling. I don't plan to follow Voltire's advice to "chain up or flee" from these fundamental markets and their potential value. But what will it take to nurture a national mindset to recognize that nothing is worth doing if one is not willing to do it well?

- William Busch

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