Saturday, February 7, 2015

Duress on the dotted line

[Cross-posted at Hit Coffee, which Will Truman has invited me to join.  His site's a good one--and he and his other co-authors are pretty good writers, so you might want to check it out.]

Free will in the marketplace is a useful construct.  But it's a construct nevertheless and can't explain everything.

About 15 years ago, I was interested in joining a gym.  There was one near where I worked—it's part of a national chain that I'll call "23-Hour Fitness."*  I went there on my 30-minute lunch break to check out their prices.  What I got was an aggressive sales pitch that lasted about 45 minutes.  They gave me a tour of the place and a sit down discussion over the various "membership options," which varied so slightly in price and services that it was hard tell the differences among them.  When the people I was speaking with couldn't find a "membership rep" (who, apparently, was the only one there with authority to sign me up), I finally made my escape, telling them I had to get back to work.

This may seem weird to someone who hasn't experienced a similar ordeal or who has a stronger will than I do. But I felt guilty about leaving them without signing up, almost as if I had unfairly taken their time only to leave them in the lurch at the last minute.  In fact, if they had found a "membership rep," odds are at least even that I would have signed up just to leave with a clear conscience.  And for the record, I knew in the first 5 or 10 minutes that I didn't want to join at all.

What if I had signed and wanted out?  There probably were (and are) some consumer protection policies that could have helped me.  Maybe a grace period of 3 days.  Maybe a cause of action in small claims court or other court.  Maybe some government consumer protection commission.  There probably also were (and are) some non-governmental opportunities.  I could have gone to the "consumers' advocate" that most local media seem to have.  I could have gone to the Better Business Bureau.  I could have closed my checking account to prevent the automatic debits.

I'm not confident most of those things would have worked or that I would have availed myself of them.  I can imagine feeling just as intimidated going in on day two of the grace period and speaking with these same folks as I had during the signup meeting.  And I wouldn't even know how to pursue a claim in court.  And the media option is luck of the draw (they probably get scores of complaints a month and can follow up only on a handful) while the BBB option amounts to a harmless tsk-tsk against the offending company.  (Closing the checking account might have worked, but I'll leave that aside because it's not convenient to my narrative.)

My point, though, is that I might have done something because I felt compelled to even though I "knew" that I had no obligation to do it and "knew" doing it was a bad idea for me.  That's a problem.  But I'm not sure what solution—policy solution or otherwise—can adequately resolve that problem, where "adequately" means, I suppose, that which would protect others similarly situated.  Grace periods can be lengthened.  Causes of action can be made easier to pursue in court.  Etc.

Some solutions are better than others.  I wouldn't ban gym contracts, for example.  And something is to be said for an adult taking responsibility for her or his actions.  And at the end of the day I guess the important thing is I didn't sign, and the problem (for me, in that instance) is hypothetical.

*Disclosure:  23-Hour Fitness is not necessarily related to any organization with a similar sounding name. 

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