Is it stupid to hoard toilet paper?

The rationality of hoarding

It’s often assumed, without further thought, that hoarding stuff in times of a crisis, like now with the coronavirus, must be not only an anti-social behaviour, but also inherently irrational. A behaviour that cannot be justified as being reasonable. But is this true?

Welcome to another episode of Lunchtime Philosophy! In this series, we’ll look at everyday problems, and how philosophy can help us make more sense of our lives and the world. Find all the posts here. I’m also posting philosophy videos on this and similar topics on YouTube!

If you think about it, hoarding of perishables like bread and milk, indeed seems to be a bad idea. But there are a few good reasons to be hoarding canned goods and toilet paper.

The inflation argument

First, even without a virus, the price of toilet paper (and cans, and everything else that keeps for a long time) is only going to go up over time, not down. Whether storing such goods for long time periods is rational or not depends on your availability and price of storage space. If one’s house has a large, empty basement that isn’t used for anything else, storing non-perishable, useful stuff in there for years can make sense, even financially. The precise calculation is difficult, involving inflation, transport costs (one trip to the supermarket for a roll of toilet paper is pretty wasteful in terms of fuel, but that ratio gets better the more I haul with one trip), and the probability of other disruptions over the time that my cans keep (no one said that we couldn’t have another typhoon or Fukushima along with the coronavirus).

The supply chains argument

Second, it is not true that the virus can be sure to not affect supply chains. If factories in China stay closed and international flights grounded, there is no telling what will arrive on the supermarket shelves and what won’t. It is enough for one component of your frozen peas packaging to become scarce for those peas to go missing.

The broken deliveries argument

Third, there’s no guarantee that super markets will stay open and accessible to the public. In many places we have already seen curfews where people were not allowed to go out for shopping, having to rely on state shopping and delivery programs (China). Internet shopping and delivery has broken down in many, otherwise civilised places. I live in Hong Kong, and it is extremely difficult to order anything from super markets online: the websites are overloaded, there are two-week-long delays between ordering and delivery slots, and what one orders is not what arrives: the super markets just deliver some random subset of what has been ordered. I’m sure such things don’t happen only in Hong Kong.

The quarantine argument

Fourth, one might not be able to go out for shopping oneself for many reasons: a quarantine order perhaps, because one had contact with a confirmed case somewhere. Or one might choose to not go out in order to minimise chances of an infection. Don’t forget that every trip to the super market is another chance to get the virus into your shopping bag. Staying away from streets and shops as much as possible is a prudent strategy, and it will work best if supported by some amount of hoarding supplies.

The other people argument

Finally, it is also rational to consider the reactions of others when one evaluates one’s own options. It would be irrational to shop as if nobody was hoarding supplies, if one can predict that the others will. Given that we know that everybody hoards toilet paper, not to do so is naive and will just hurt one’s own interests. Of course, this kind of logic leads to an uneven distribution of supplies and to some people being left out in the end, but, as a parent, one first has an obligation towards one’s own family and only secondarily to the public at large. If I can hoard and make sure that my family has what they need, then I will do so, and this will be a rational and defensible choice.

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