In Tepid Defense of the Man Who Threatened to Sue a Chinese Restaurant Over $4

[The New Republic has now posted a version of this piece.]

By now even Ben Edelman thinks Ben Edelman is an asshole, but I want to defend him on one point. There has been widespread consensus that in threatening to sue a Chinese restaurant for overcharging him $4 on a take-out meal, Edelman behaved like a petty, selfish prick. I want to make the claim that only the latter of these three descriptors is true. Edelman was a prick, but he was not petty or selfish.

A picture has emerged framing the restaurant-owner as the hapless victim of Edelman’s vindictive terrorizing. The story is of a rich, entitled, overeducated, hyperaggressive lawyer harassing a struggling immigrant business-owner over a measly sum. But I think this framing is slightly unfair. From Edelman’s record, he seems to be extremely sincere about helping keep consumers safe from fraud, and if the story is viewed from a consumer protection angle, Edelman’s actions are far more explicable.

Fraudulent business practices are widespread and often have little remedy. At every juncture, people are faced with scams and rip-offs. Most people are either too trusting or simply don’t have enough time to figure out all of the cases where they’re being taken advantage of. Or, if they do, they don’t have a good remedy. Or, if they do get a remedy through negotiating, the business still has an incentive to keep ripping people off, because it’s easy to just pay off the few customers that complain. A restaurant listing different prices on its website from what it charges could easily be this kind of practice. In this case, as Edelman pointed out, the restaurant had known for months it was showing people the wrong prices, but hadn’t updated the website. Well, perhaps that was an honest mistake. But changing the site takes all of five minutes. And the restaurant had no incentive to do so, given that few consumers would notice the price difference. By not taking the simple steps necessary to follow the law, the Sichuan Garden was stealing people’s money. Every day. For months. They may or may not have thought this was what they were doing, they may have been honest. But this is what they were doing.

It is also worth pointing out that the restaurant in question is hardly frail. The Boston Globe describes it as “hugely successful.” It has multiple locations and has been profiled in GQ. This is relevant, because the dominant narrative has been of a wealthy man using his specialized knowledge in order to intimidate the weak, with a lot of emphasis placed on the owner’s immigrant status. But the larger this business is, the less sympathy it deserves, because it should be perfectly capable of complying with simple legal requirements. I am sure that Edelman is used to huge companies claiming that they are “family-owned” in order to justify violations of law. A successful business does not receive the benefit of the doubt on these matters; if the company was deducting $1 here and there from its employees’ wages, we might be less sanguine. Telling you what you’ll be charged is basic, and a company must be vigilant about it. Ben Edelman was therefore not being petty, he was being firm. There is an extremely important principle at stake here: there should be a zero tolerance policy on systematic overcharging.

Nor was Edelman acting selfishly. As much of the commentary on the story points out, Edelman had little to gain here. He is very well-paid professor; $4, or even $12, is not particularly significant to him. It certainly isn’t worth the time Edelman spent in trying to obtain it. Edelman’s time is extremely valuable, to the tune of at least $800/hr, according to the Boston Globe. Spending any more than about two minutes on this refund makes this a losing proposition for Edelman. That means that he is doing this work on principle. Now, perhaps that principle is simply vindictiveness. But I don’t think so. He has made a career of examining predatory practices everywhere from Facebook to the airline industry. I think he sincerely believes that fraud in all forms should not be tolerated, and that as he goes about his life, he should use his skills to set things right so that other people are not taken advantage of by businesses. He wants to make sure that businesses honor the terms of their agreements with customers, so that when you and I go to a restaurant, we don’t pay more than we think we’re paying. He uses the full muscle of his education, experience, and privilege in order to make sure that happens. Note that it was when Edelman discovered the website had been out of date “for quite some time”; i.e. that many, many consumers had been taken advantage of, that he escalated his severity.

However, none of this means that Ben Edelman did not behave like a prick. In deploying threats immediately to an evidently earnest business-owner, and in his ceaseless hostility, Edelman crossed a line of decency, as he acknowledged. I think he is probably simply cynical: he is used to companies crying for sympathy, and sheds no tears for those who reap additional profits by violating the law, through overcharging or otherwise. That’s not an excuse, though; we should all act like human beings, all the time. (He also used the phrase “to wit,” for which he should be mercilessly castigated.)

Readers of the Ben Edelman story should be careful not to condemn him too completely, because the situation is complex. I think criticisms of him should focus on his tone rather than his substance. The issues here do actually matter, and this case is different in important ways from the judge who sued his dry cleaner over lost pants. There, the business made an honest mistake that it did not profit from, and the judge was purely vengeful and sought millions in compensation. Here, the business profited for months off its deception, and Edelman sought only to make sure the law was taken seriously, not to enrich himself.

Ultimately, if Ben Edelman wants to spend his free time as a roving, pro bono consumer protection unit, we’re all the better off for it. Certainly, he has probably done more for the public good than any prior known Harvard Business professor.