Price Gouging Saves Lives in a Hurricane - David M. Brown - Mises Daily

October 31, 2012 4:31 PM ~  
Price Gouging Saves Lives in a Hurricane - David M. Brown - Mises Daily.

In the evening before Hurricane Charley hit central Florida, news anchors Bob Opsahl and Martie Salt of Orlando's Channel 9 complained that we "sure don't need" vendors to take advantage of the coming storm by raising their prices for urgently needed emergency supplies.

In the days since the hurricane hit, many other reporters and public officials have voiced similar sentiments. There are laws against raising prices during a natural disaster. It's called "price gouging." The state's attorney general has assured Floridians that he's going to crack down on such. There's even a hotline you can call if you notice a store charging a higher price for an urgently needed good than you paid before demand for the good suddenly went through the roof. The penalties are stiff: up to $25,000 per day for multiple violations.

But offering goods for sale is per se "taking advantage" of customers. Customers also "take advantage" of sellers. Both sides gain from the trade. In an unhampered market, the self-interest of vendors who supply urgently needed goods meshes beautifully with the self-interest of customers who urgently need these goods. In a market, we have price mechanisms to ensure that when there is any dramatic change in the supply of a good or the demand for a good, economic actors can respond accordingly, taking into account the new information and incentives. If that's rapacity, bring on the rapacity.

Prices are how scarce goods get allocated in markets in accordance with actual conditions. When demand increases, prices go up, all other things being equal. It's not immoral. If orange groves are frozen over (or devastated by Hurricane Charley), leading to fewer oranges going to market, the price of oranges on the market is going to go up as a result of the lower supply. And if demand for a good suddenly lapses or supply of that good suddenly expands, prices will go down. Should lower prices be illegal too?