On his way home from work, a man stops to investigate a local garage sale. While wandering through rows of wreckage, one item catches his eye – an old motorcycle that has clearly been neglected. He haggles with the owner for a few moments before settling on a price befitting of an elderly motorcycle, then loads it into his truck and heads home.
Once in his garage, the new owner takes a closer look at his latest acquisition. He removes the seat and finds an engraving that reads, “To Elvis, love Priscilla.”
The new owner races into his home and calls the local antiquarian for an appraisal. The bike is confirmed to have once belonged to Elvis Presley and is valued upward of $1,000,000. The owner brings the bike to auction, sells it and returns home to live out the rest of his days in luxury.
This story isn’t true, of course, but it’s certainly enticing. The appeal of this tale is the hope that one day fortune may find us as well, but what about the man who sold the motorcycle at the garage sale? Isn’t this fable as much a myth of chance and riches as it is one of adversity and loss?
From the perspective of the previous owner, this story would provoke frustration and even anger toward the new owner. Indeed, if we were in the shoes of the man who held the garage sale, we would likely feel that we had been cheated. So here’s the question: does the new owner owe the previous owner a share of the fortune?
First, let’s examine the relationship between buyer and seller. It’s not unusual for products to be sold with the knowledge, and even expectation, that they will be sold again at a higher price. What makes this circumstance exceptional is the massive profit made by the new owner. Had the new owner made only a few thousand dollars on the motorcycle, the previous owner probably wouldn’t feel wronged.
Another vital fact is that the previous owner did not know the true value of the bike. It is true that he agreed to the price, but he did so with the understanding that it was an ordinary motorcycle. Now we could simply place the responsibility on the previous owner to know what he was selling, but that would mean that every transaction should be final, regardless of error, which isn’t the case. If we are mistakenly billed too much for an item we expect to be compensated. However, when we are billed to little for an item we consider it a gift and demand that the vendor honor their agreement. Because the story is told from the perspective of the new owner, making him the beneficiary of a transaction error, we feel as though he was blessed by the mistake of a vendor.
The third element at play in this predicament is the fact that the new owner did not know the value of the motorcycle at the time of purchase. Had he known, then we would likely feel that the previous owner had indeed been cheated, since the new owner withheld vital information about the bike. Is concealing information the equivalent of a lie? Perhaps not, but it’s definitely not praiseworthy behavior.
In order to fully understand the situation, we must also ponder the concept of theft. The classic definition of theft as taking something from someone without their permission has proven inadequate in many situations, including this one. After all, the previous owner did give his permission, and he was compensated, so it’s hard to accuse the new owner of outright thievery, but he also isn’t not a thief. When the new owner learned that the bike belonged to Elvis, it became apparent that he gotten more than he payed for at that garage sale. The previous owner thought he was selling a motorcycle, but he wasn’t; he was selling Elvis Presley’s motorcycle. It would be like selling a pair of pants with a diamond ring in the pocket. We may have had no idea that the ring was there, or that we even owned the ring, but that doesn’t mean that we are no longer entitled to it.
Let’s imagine that the new owner doesn’t immediately sell the bike. Instead, he ponders his moral obligation to the previous owner. He concludes that he is the rightful owner of the motorcycle and sells it, but also feels that he should share the fortune with the previous owner. How much of the money does the previous owner deserve? As we’ve learned before, there are only three reasonable options: nothing, one half or all of it. Anything else would be an arbitrary amount aimed at appeasement, not justice. But the new owner can only ask this question because he’s in control of the money. If the previous owner somehow controlled the money, how much would he think the new owner deserved? Also, what if the new new owner who bought the motorcycle at the auction sold it for $2,000,000?
None of this matters anyway, because the guy selling the bike at the garage sale got it from someone else. If there is a true owner, then it’s either the first owner or the current owner. There are no happy endings, because nothing ends.