Yesterday, Matthew Iglesias at Slate warned us that many people living in states suffering from the freak storm Hurricane Sandy will find themselves in dire shortages as the free market gets tangled with price gouging laws:
Even in these polarized times, there are some things politicians of both parties can agree. Price gouging, for example, is wrong. New York Attorney General Eric Scheiderman, a Democrat, wants you to know it. But this isn’t just for soft-hearted liberals. New Jersey’s notoriously tough conservative governor, Chris Christie, also put out a weekend press release warning that “price gouging during a state of emergency is illegal” and that complaints would be investigated by the attorney general. Specifically, Garden State merchants are barred from raising prices more than 10 percent over their normal level during emergency conditions (New York’s anti-gouging law sets a less precise definition, barring “unconscionably extreme” increases).
The bipartisan indignation is heartening, but there’s one problem. These laws are hideously misguided. Stopping price hikes during disasters may sound like a way to help people, but all it does is exacerbate shortages and complicate preparedness.
The basic imperative to allocate goods efficiently doesn’t vanish in a storm or other crisis. If anything, it becomes more important. And price controls in an emergency have the same results as they do any other time: They lead to shortages and overconsumption. Letting merchants raise prices if they think customers will be willing to pay more isn’t a concession to greed. Rather, it creates much-needed incentives for people to think harder about what they really need and appropriately rewards vendors who manage their inventories well.
Today, gasoline is in short demand as retailers who were able to stay open are prohibited from adjusting prices in the face of inflated demand:
Drivers and homeowners scrambled to secure fuel for their cars and generators in the U.S. Northeast on Wednesday as storm-hit gasoline stations started to run dry.
More than half of all gasoline service stations in the New York City area and New Jersey were shut because of depleted fuel supplies and power outages, frustrating attempts to restore normal life, industry officials said.
Reports of long lines, dark stations and empty tanks circulated across the region. Some station owners were unable to pump fuel due to a lack of power, while others quickly ran their tanks dry because of increased demand and logistical problems in delivering fresh supplies.
Being able to adjust prices to reflect market conditions isn’t price gouging, it’s good economic sense.
As economist Art Carden eloquently wrote in 2011, “[I]n post-disaster situations rising prices perform vital economic triage by showing which uses of resources are now high-value and which uses of resources are now low-value.”
“A disaster means a big shock both to what people want and to the resources available to fulfill those wants. Freely-moving prices make sure resources are allocated to their highest-valued uses, and rising prices send people a very important signal: resources have gotten scarcer and need to be conserved. If houses are destroyed by a tornado, rising lumber prices tell someone in an unaffected area to think twice about building a new deck because the lumber is probably more valuable rebuilding houses. Rising gas prices tell people to think twice about burning scarce gas for a Sunday drive in the country. And so on.”
In other words, temporarily higher prices would encourage those not directly involved in cleanup to stay home and out of the way until the economy stabilizes.
But with price gouging laws, your desire to drive around looking at a storm’s destruction is just as valid as the crews who are working to clean it up, and makes the overall economic situation that much more painful, for a longer period.