Price Gouging: A Life-Saving Market Mechanism
As Hurricane Florence prepares to ravage the Southeastern United States, social media warriors, and “news” outlets are exclaiming their outrage at the business owners who are raising prices on essential items such as water, food, gasoline, plywood, and even hotel rooms. This “price gouging,” however, is absolutely essential, for people’s lives are at risk due to this storm. When clouded by emotion, increasing the price of these commodities may come across as detrimental, and even malicious. But a sober mind must acknowledge the necessity of price flexibility.
Price Gouging and Basic Economics
We can look at the effects of price gouging from two perspectives: supply and demand.
On the demand side, increasing the price of these goods makes consumers more conscious of their purchases. In other words, this encourages people to live within their means. When a disaster is incoming, such as a hurricane or a blizzard, people will see others at grocery stores stocking up on water and other essentials. They will, however, purchase too much if the price stays the same. Whereas a storm and its immediate aftermath may last for a few days, people will purchase enough to last them for months, resulting in shortages.
By increasing the price of a good, customers are more likely to purchase only what they need to survive. Now, many will say that this just means that the rich will outbid the poor on necessary resources. But this is not the case when one thinks on the margin. In everyday life, the rich don’t outbid the poor on food because the rich do not need all the food in the world. They will only purchase food so long as the perceived benefit acquired is worth more than the money they will have lost if they make the purchase. In other words, price gouging stops the rich from buying all of the water and thus allows the poor to buy water that they may desperately need.
Keeping the Prices the Same Hurts Everyone
Suppose water stayed at the same price throughout a disaster. The receivers of the water will then be the first to show up. But what if the first comers take far more than they need for this disaster? Then there will be nothing left. By increasing prices, store managers are making sure that people only buy what they find to be necessary so that they do not run out of goods. This allows for a greater distribution of essential goods.
On the supply side, price gouging helps increase the quantity. The rich can only outbid the poor if there is a fixed amount of a given resource within the area in which a disaster has occurred. This is far from the case. By increasing prices, the market is signaling to businesses to reallocate resources to the area in need of resources. This has two effects.
First, entrepreneurs who live outside the disaster area see a willingness of consumers to purchase items at a higher price. That means that entrepreneurs will be far more likely to take the risk of traveling to the area to sell the items. This makes the number of goods to rise, allowing for more people to be able to access essential resources.
Second, charities see higher prices and begin initiatives to give resources to those in need. Governments cause shortages by implementing price controls. Charities and entrepreneurs save lives. There is not a fixed amount of goods. The price system readjusts incentive structures to ensure that enough people have what they need to survive a natural disaster.
Price gouging is no different from any other instance of price flexibility. Those who charge a higher price despite popular outrage deserve a medal, for they are saving lives by ensuring people only purchase what they need to survive a disaster. For all of you who will be affected by Hurricane Florence, stay safe and thank a price gouger!