Morally superior fraud

Via Glenn Reynolds' link, my attention was drawn to an absolutely monstrous device which instantly makes barcodes for whatever item you might want, at whatever price you might set.

Ichiku's Barcode Magic can be used to generate your own custom pricing labels for whatever price you choose. Since most barcodes use a uniform system, it isn't that difficult to make something expensive -- say, an iPod -- cost just a five-spot.
In my first year contracts class at law school I was taught that a price tag constitutes an "offer" to sell the goods at the price on the tag, and that the offer is accepted by the customer tendering the goods to the clerk. The contract is performed (completed) as soon as the cash register literally "rings down" the sale. During class discussion, some smartass law student raised the issue of counteroffers (aka "haggling"), and asked why it wouldn't constitute a counteroffer to change the price tag to reflect what the counterofferor was willing to pay. This caused much derisive laughter, and obviously it would be no defense to a charge of larceny.

Or, in the case of the fake barcode labels, forgery.

But everyone is operating under the assumption that barcodes on store items would necessarily be altered for personal gain. Would they?

Suppose a group of activists decided that the best way to hurt a given company was to deliberately misprice it's product line, and they went into stores and simply stuck incorrect barcodes onto the targeted product line. There are plenty of things that a lot of people think should not be sold, and there are plenty of companies (and store chains) considered evil. I don't think examples are needed. Would that be forgery? Depends on the forgery statute; some of them require that there be some intent to acheive personal gain, while some don't. (A subject discussed extensively during Rathergate.) Is it more noble to alter one's driver's license to get into the military than to get into a nightclub?

While the answer to the last one is obvious, what makes the deliberate harming of a product line or a store chain morally superior to saving a few bucks on a pack of razor blades? Is it because the latter is selfish, while harming a store in the name of a cause is "altruistic"? I'm a bit puzzled, and quite frankly, if I owned the company which was being hurt this way, I'd see the activists as infinitely more evil than the ordinary thief. Society (and the courts) see otherwise, and that's because of a thing we call "moral authority."

Because moral authority invests people with a right (at least in their minds) to do evil in the name of good, I think it is arguably more evil than an honestly acknowledged ordinary criminal motive. History shows that far more harm has been done by people who believed that their moral authority erases ordinary guilt.

Back in the 1970s, even theft was considered morally virtuous, provided the thief was a leftist, and called his theft the "liberation" of an item. (Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book explains why.) And even today, responsible journalists sometimes claim that robberies committed by poor people are morally superior to lies told by the well-off.

I'm sure that certain morally superior deconstructionists would claim that all morality is fraud (a fraudulent social construct of whatever sort), but, then, isn't such a claim necessarily predicated on morality? If so, then isn't it just another form of fraud, cloaked with self-canceling moral superiority?

MORE: Raging Bee's comment below highlights the fact that barcodes are not necessarily prices; they're often codes for items. Which means that mispricing an item would require mislabeling that item.

posted by Eric on 12.08.05 at 09:46 AM


Something doesn't sound quite right here: does a barcode really contain information about the actual price, or just about the product itself? It seems to me that a store would keep price information in their databases, retrieved via links to product information in the barcodes. This would enable stores to change prices at will without having to reprint all the barcode labels. What merchant would want to reprint a lot of labels every time he had to raise prices or offer a special temporary bargain?

As I remember, most grocery stores simply stopped putting price tags on individual items for that very reason.

Raging Bee   ·  December 8, 2005 12:40 PM

If it's the product that's coded and the price is stored elsewhere, you wouldn't be barcoding the price, but substituting a different (and cheaper) item. A lot of stores sell items with bar codes already printed on the package. If you duplicated, say, a bar code label for an item costing $5.00 and put it on an item costing more, you'd be charged $5.00. (Unless the clerk had enough brains to realize what was going on....)

One could also sabotage a product line by RAISING the prices to higher levels, but I think a lot of consumers would complain.

Eric Scheie   ·  December 8, 2005 12:49 PM

There are many legitimate uses for a barcode printer: libraries is the most accessible example.

(Unless this gizmo was designed to counterfeit official labels)

Mike Z   ·  December 8, 2005 6:33 PM

Well, hell, any modern printer can print a barcode, and all you need is a barcode font, which you can download for free. That software just makes it more convenient.

That product is far more useful for inventory control at a small business or for hobbies or collections, especially for the very-anal.

You can barcode all your books and movies, and scan them when you loan them out to people, etc.

(And of course the theft issue is mitigated by the cashiers being pretty likely to notice that your iPod rang up for $5 as an audio cable... they may be distracted and semi-oblivious, but they're not *stupid* and their boss will like it if they catch larcenous customers...)

Sigivald   ·  December 8, 2005 6:54 PM

Don't take me too literally. When I said "an absolutely monstrous device" I was having a little fun.

(I'd fight to protect the right to sell these things.)

Eric Scheie   ·  December 8, 2005 9:05 PM

Bee is right, barcodes are to inventory and keep track of items, which means that when you substitute a barcode you're not merely getting a cheaper price but wreaking havoc with a store's inventory.

And yeah, it is kind of obvious when an iPod rings up for five bucks. It's also obvious that when a paperback book rings up as a $200+ Beatles anthology, that barcode has scanned wrong and may need to be typed in by hand. (Funny story...)

B. Durbin   ·  December 8, 2005 10:15 PM

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