When a natural disaster strikes, it is almost guaranteed that there will be yet another uproar about price gouging. Media pundits will take to the airwaves to virtue signal against people who would dare to exploit disaster victims. Government officials will use the crisis to score political points by portraying themselves as defenders of the common people against greedy capitalists. But how accurately does this reflect reality? Let us explore the nature of price gouging to see the economics of such a situation and explain the behavior of journalists and state agents.
In order to intelligently approach the concept of price gouging, one must first define it. Price gouging is a sudden, sharp increase in prices that occurs in response to a disaster or other civil emergency. Though this defines the act well, it does not explain the mechanisms behind it. When a disaster approaches, there are certain goods that people wish to acquire in greater quantities than normal, such as clean drinking water, non-perishable foods, wooden boards for protecting windows, and so on. If supply is held constant, then this sudden increase in demand for such goods will produce a sudden increase in their prices.
If left unhindered by the state, this upward pressure on prices will produce important benefits. First, it serves as a signal to producers and distributors of those goods that more supply is needed. The producers and distributors thus learn where their goods are most urgently in demand, allowing them to engage in mutually beneficial transactions with disaster victims. This is how free markets are supposed to function in order to meet the needs of customers.
Second, price gouging encourages proactive preparations. A potential business model for a firm is to invest in equipment that allows it to operate when a disaster would otherwise force it to close, and use the proceeds from price gouging to amortize the cost of the equipment. This helps consumers by allowing them to purchase goods at higher prices rather than be left without essential items during a crisis.
Third, price gouging provides an important benefit by conserving the fixed amount of resources which are present before more deliveries can be made to the disaster area. The higher cost of scarce goods disincentivizes people from buying up supplies that other people need, thus helping to keep the items in stock. This keeps scarce resources from being wasted on marginal uses, directing them toward their most valued uses and the people who most need them instead.
Markets And Malice
Unfortunately, not every instance of price gouging is so benevolent. Business owners who seek to exploit vulnerable people in order to make money do exist. But engaging in such behavior in a free market produces a short-term gain followed by a long-term loss. In a pure capitalist environment, reputation is everything for a business. Whatever profits may come from gouging disaster victims in the present will be more than outweighed by the sales that one will lose in the future because of the damage that this does to one’s brand. After all, most people would view such behavior as adding insult to injury and vote against it with their wallets. Though it is impossible to accurately count sales that do not happen, to dismiss this effect as nonexistent is to commit the broken window fallacy.
Enter The State
Most people are economically illiterate, so they tend to focus on the malevolent type of price gouging and be unaware of the benevolent type. In a democratic state, this has predictable results. Politicians and other government agents will frown upon price gouging and seek to punish anyone who they believe to be engaging in it. But it can be difficult to distinguish the natural effects of demand spikes and limited supplies upon price from the efforts of greedy exploiters of disaster victims, especially for government officials who are too far removed from the disaster area to be intimately familiar with the economic dynamics there. Thus, all price gouging is suppressed by the state, and while this may protect a few people from exploitation, it causes more harm than good by disrupting the market signals which would have informed producers and distributors that their goods need to be sent to the disaster area. The end result is that scarce goods are depleted and not replaced, leading people to once more blame the market for failing them when the actual cause of their shortage was a government failure.
Suppression of price gouging has several deleterious effects. First, by placing price controls on goods, the state deprives entrepreneurs of the profit motive to bring additional supply to the disaster area. Without state inteference, people who live outside of the disaster area and are willing to travel there in order to bring supplies could charge enough for their goods to recover their travel costs and be compensated for the inconvenience of spending time in a disaster area, all while making enough profit to make such a venture more attractive than other economic opportunities. Price gouging laws remove such action, leaving only state agencies and altruistic private groups to provide aid. Note that like all government regulations, price gouging laws are subject to regulatory capture by the largest businesses.
Second, removing the incentive for proactive preparations makes untenable the business model for operating during a disaster described above. Third, removing the conservation effect of price gouging forces business owners to sell goods below their market-clearing price. This incentivizes hoarders to buy more than they need and scalpers to buy goods for resale. The existence of scalpers also makes desired goods more difficult to find, as resellers will be more difficult to locate than established stores. Thus, laws against price gouging do not eliminate the practice, but rather shift it from primary markets to secondary markets and cause a different set of people to profit. Taken together, these effects result in artificial scarcity that makes conditions in a disaster area even worse.
A Pair of Razors
Given the clear case in favor of price gouging, one may wonder why so many people in positions of political power rail against it. Reece’s razor suggests that we look for the most cynical explanation when attempting to determine a motive for state policy. No other possibility prioritizes the self-interest of politicians and their minions over the lives and properties of citizens quite like the idea that government officials want to suppress the natural response of markets in order to make government disaster relief agencies look effective and necessary, thus justifying their existence and expansion, so Reece’s razor selects it.
However, it is not in the rational self-interest of elected officials to increase the suffering of disaster victims who are capable of removing them from office in the next election. A better explanation is offered by Hanlon’s razor, which says that one should not attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity. In this view, government officials are not trying to increase the harm done during a disaster; they simply know no better because they are just as economically illiterate as the electorate, if not more so. This razor is a better fit for the available logic and evidence.
It is clear that price gouging has an important economic role in ensuring that goods both go to those who need them most and remain available in times of emergency. Market prices are important signals that tell producers and distributors where their goods are most urgently needed. When the state interferes with this process by imposing price controls, it turns off the signal and incentives for market actors to send aid, encourages hoarding and scalping, and discourages conservation and farsightedness. These effects mean that laws against price gouging harm the very people that they are ostensibly supposed to help. Therefore, price gouging should not be punished by the state or demonized by the press.