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Question: My friend said that even if I didn’t pay my bill, it’s illegal for ConEd to turn off my electricity. Is this true? If so, why do we all continue to pay our utility bills? Would you consider my (our) relationship with ConEd to be a Hobbesian contract?
Answer: Your friend is one of two kinds of people. The first kind is squatting a small, forgotten flat in Co-Op City off I-95, siphoning electricity from a series of interconnected extension cords plugged into an outlet up the hall, watching de-scrambled cable television on a ‘borrowed’ set, and subsisting on pilfered Ramen noodles from the local corner store. The second kind pays every bill religiously while advising you to buck the system.
Either way, your friend is only right if certain conditions have been met. Yes, ConEd can turn your power off for nonpayment, as long as you’re not old, blind, physically challenged, at a health risk, or, in some cases, sharing the residence with an infant. The same is true for many utility companies throughout the United States. No one’s going to win PR points for forcing a blind, wheelchair-bound, 90-year-old woman to sit in the dark because she spent her social-security check on life-sustaining medicine instead of the electric bill.
In most northern states, heat-related utilities for residential customers can’t be terminated under any circumstances between November 1 and March 31. This prevents perilous health conditions, bursting pipes, and frozen babies in the long, wintry months of Not Paying Your Bills. In the summer, however, you’re out of luck. Power companies don’t worry about heat stroke. That’s the waterworks’ problem.
In the case of deadbeat landlords, there’s generally a special procedure in which the building’s residents get extra warning before the whole building loses juice and you’re stuck in the elevator with a bag of spoilable groceries and the creepy guy who lives across the hall and talks to squirrels. Nevertheless, all you get is prior warning—a little more time to tear your crummy landlord a new one.
As for your relationship with ConEd being a Hobbesian contract, this assumes that the natural human condition is a state of war. In primitive terms, say someone has fire. You want the fire to cook your meat, and the firekeeper wants some of your meat for dinner. The natural impulse, according to Hobbes, is for the firekeeper to burn your ass before you stab him with an antler. But you’re both reasonable individuals, so you agree to give the firekeeper a regular ration of meat in exchange for fire. Everybody gets a nice hot wildcat.
Those are the rules, and it’s ‘wrong’ to steal the fire because breaking the rules is not in your best interest. Sooner or later, the firekeeper will have his revenge. So will ConEd.
Your Hobbesian contract is this: pay the bill and get power; ConEd provides power and gets paid. In Hobbes’s eye, laws and morals (like ‘do not steal from the power company’) ultimately satisfy our own selfish needs, and that’s fine. If you break the law, you suffer. You’re the one left standing in a cold shower.
On the other hand, ConEd has you by the shorts. Chances are you’re not awash in power alternatives. If ConEd says a month’s electric is going to cost you $100, a lock of hair, and 20,000 pushups, you’re probably going to write a check, see the barber, and hit the ground.
At the end of the day, when you’d rather not read by kerosene lantern, it’s easier to pay your power bill and honor the deal. Or you could always crash at Co-Op City for a while. Your friend gets the Spice Channel. De-scrambled.