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Stop Eviscerating the Harvard Professor Who Threatened to Sue a Chinese Restaurant Over $4. He Has a Point.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

By now even Ben Edelman thinks Ben Edelman is fairly despicable. He's the now-infamous Harvard Business School professor who threatened to sue a Chinese restaurant for overcharging him $4 on a take-out meal. The consensus is that he's a cheap, entitled bully and that the immigrant restaurant owner is a hapless victim. But the framing is 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 more laudable than despicable.

Fraudulent business practices are widespread in America and often have little remedy. People are frequently scammed but are unaware or too busy to do anything about it. Even those who seek a remedy often fail to find one, and businesses have an incentive to keep ripping other customers off because it’s easy to pay off the few, like Edelman, who complain. 

Sichuan Garden owner Ran Duan's initial reply to Edelman stated that the restaurant's website was out of date and the menu prices had gone up—and made no offer to reimburse Edelman for the difference. That only changed once Edelman become more serious. As he points out, the restaurant had known for months it was showing people the wrong prices, but hadn’t updated the website. Perhaps this was an honest mistake, but changing the site takes all of five minutes. The restaurant had no incentive to do so, however, given that few consumers would notice the price difference. By not taking the simple steps necessary to follow the law, Sichuan Garden was essentially stealing people’s money every day, for months.

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 academic using his specialized knowledge to intimidate a plucky immigrant unfamiliar with the fine print in American law. But the larger this business is, the less sympathy it deserves because it should be perfectly capable of complying with simple legal requirements. Edelman is surely 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 customers exactly what they’ll be charged is a simple, basic practice, one that any business should be vigilant about.

As much of the commentariat notes, Edelman had little to gain here. He's a very well-paid professor and consultant; $4 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 Bloomberg Businessweek. Spending any more than about two minutes on this refund makes this a losing proposition for Edelman. But he has made a career of examining predatory practices places like Facebook and in the airline industry. He probably believes sincerely that fraud in all forms should not be tolerated, and that as he goes about his life, he should use the full muscle of his education, experience, and privilege to set things right, so that other people are not taken advantage of. It wasn't until Edelman discovered the website had been out of date “for quite some time”—in other words, that many, many consumers had been taken advantage of—that he escalated his severity.

None of this means that Ben Edelman did not behave like a jerk. In threatening an evidently earnest business-owner with legal action and increasing hostility, Edelman crossed a line of decency, as he has acknowledged. The issues here do matter, though, and this case is different in important ways from, say, the judge who actually 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 he wants to spend his free time as a roving, pro bono consumer protection unit, the country's Chinese food customers are better off for it.