What is a fair price? If a Dublin restaurant owner can buy two dozen sea bass fillets for €30, a large pack of rocket for €5, a big bag of dainty yellow and red miniature tomatoes for another fiver, a couple of red onions for €1, a few lumps of mozzarella for €4, a large bag of spuds for €10 and a plastic jumbo bottle of olive oil for another €10 (the garlic and a bit of rosemary, surely, will be thrown in for free and sure the oil will last you nearly forever), what then is the appropriate price for your lunch, spigola, patata al forno con rosmarino, insalata italiana? Let me see, that would be €65 divided by twelve, that’s €5.50, let’s say, a head. Seems fair to me. So how come I paid €17.50 last week – and I only got one fillet?
Ancient and medieval theorists of price were very resistant to the notion of profit. If you were to ask one of those philosopher types what would be the appropriate selling price in the Athenian agora for an amphora of good Attic wine which the merchant had bought for three obols he might very well tell you that the price should be three obols. That the merchant was due any recompense for his visit to the vineyard, his no doubt far from pleasant haggling with the viticulteur, his standing in the heat of the sun all day in the market place or the possibility that his wine, if it remained unbought, might eventually spoil, leading customers to say “Three obols? Three bleedin’ obols? I wouldn’t give you a tetartemorion for it.”
Theoreticians and moralists finally budged marginally from complete disapproval of the merchant (“import-export” man), grudgingly according him the right to a little something for the trouble he had gone to, or, in more generous versions, the service he was performing to society (not forgetting the “hidden costs” ‑ in our own example above the cost of the gas to cook the sea bass and whatever pittance is paid to whoever it was cooked it). We are a long way still however from the theory that underpins modern commerce, that the just (that is the right price, le prix juste) for an item is the price you can get for it. And as long as there are no empty tables in the restaurant the right price for a small piece of fish would seem to be €17.50.
Prices of course can come down as well as go up. If I have two thousand slightly dodgy fold-up umbrellas in my lockup which I intend to sell on the street during a wet spring and summer and then it barely rains from early April to August I may well be willing to “offload” them to someone more fluid than myself who will take them off my hands for say 50 cent a unit, even if I was hoping to get €2.99 a unit on the street and indeed paid 35 cent a unit to a chap from the subcontinent for them not so long ago. This will particularly be the case if my bookmaker or some other creditor is urgently “pressing”. Circumstances make the price, which you could write in Latin if you knew how.
Classical moralists felt the trade of shopkeeper or stallholder was inseparable from fraud and dishonesty. If they weren’t fiddling the weights they would be telling all sorts of improbable stories to justify an outrageous price or conspiring to create an artificial scarcity or “corner the market” before an actual one. The buyer, it was felt, was always at a disadvantage. This was part of the appeal (for moralists; it also had practical appeal for those who carried it out) of the system of “dumb barter”. This occurred when a trader, a seagoing Phoenician let us say, would leave some goods, manufactured goods perhaps, glass or silverware, on a beach along the northern African coast, near what he knew to be an inhabited area, and then withdraw. Shortly afterwards, the inhabitants of the interior would go to the beach (alerted by a fire perhaps, or a gong) and after investigating what was on offer, leave some goods of their own, salt or animal carcasses, and then in their turn withdraw. The Phoenician would come back to see what exchange was offered and perhaps accept it or perhaps withdraw again to allow the people of the interior to add more, this process being repeated as many times as necessary before a bargain satisfactory to each party was arrived at. The whole thing appealed hugely to the scholars as it seemed to them that here was a method of exchange which was entirely without compulsion and in which each party retired satisfied (it doesn’t take too much examination however to see that that may not always have been the case).
We have been much lectured in recent years that it is our bounden duty to constantly seek out value for money in order to promote “efficiencies” in the market. Mary Harney, in the great days of the FF/PDs coalition, would have had us spend every Sunday whizzing around the M50 pricing kitchen units and never paying a penny more than we must. And now apparently you can get a little device which will read the bar code of items on display in the shop you’re in and tell you how much cheaper you can get them somewhere else. A great boon, but don’t be too surprised, or indeed offended, if you are roughly removed by the security staff.
Everyone loves a bargain certainly, but it may not be the case that everyone has always loved a bargain. Odon of Cluny tells us that one Géraud of Aurillac, on his way back to France after a pilgrimage to Rome was approached at a camp in Pavia by a group of Venetian merchants who were travelling from one tent to another offering spices and fine silks. “What I wanted to buy I bought at Rome,” Géraud told them politely. “Do you think I made a good buy?” Looking at his goods the merchants found one piece of cloth that interested them in particular and asked Géraud how much he had paid for it. Géraud told them and they remarked pleasantly: “You certainly did well there; if you’d bought it at Constantinople it would have cost you twice as much.” This is the kind of news that cheers most people up but not Géraud, who was thrown into a profound depression by the thought that he had done the Roman merchant an injustice by failing to give him what his goods were worth. And as a Christian must find a remedy for an injustice committed, not very many days passed before the cloth merchant of Rome was surprised to find delivered to him by courier the difference between the price he had sold for and the price reigning at Constantinople.