The Gouge on Price Gouging

By Mike Cronin

In military slang, the word gouge can mean information or intelligence. For example: One person tells another a trick or hack for getting a task done quicker. The second person might say “thanks for the gouge.”

On the other hand, people are very much not thankful for what they perceive to be the price gouging happening in Houston and the rest of the Hurricane Harvey impact zone.  Loosely defined, price gouging is when a vendor radically raises their prices, as often occurs in and near disaster zones. Potential customers believe such vendors to be vultures, capitalizing on the misery of others.

But is that what is really going on?

In a recent Facebook post, A group called  “Educate the People” shared pictures of a convenience store billboard showing gas prices over $8.00 per gallon, and a case of bottled water going for nearly $45.00.  The caption beloe the pictures read “Heartless Capitalist Texas Store Owners.”

“Educate the Public” indeed! It’s not heartless. If millions of people are trying to “get out of Dodge,”(or stockpile at the last minute) because a disaster is imminent or in-progress, then supply trucks aren’t going into Dodge. When that happens, the things we normally take for granted are suddenly in much more demand, soon to be much scarcer, and thus suddenly much more valuable. When the demand for something skyrockets, but the supply is shrinking, the price must skyrocket as well. It sucks if you want to buy the thing that has quadrupled in price (so you have some to spare), but if you genuinely need it for survival, there just might still be some available because the people who merely wanted it weren’t willing to fork over the cash. It may seem like the store owner is profiteering, but consider: The store is still open and doing business when everyone else is trying to flee or hole-up!

If the store owner left his prices at the normal level (or was forced by the government to do so), he’d be out of stock in hours – or even minutes, with no routine resupply on the calendar. What is he, or his customers most in need, to do then?

The purveyors of “Educate the Public” should consider taking some remedial economics lessons instead of pandering to a generation of Americans who are being taught that they are entitled to something just because they think they need it.

To save them some time, here are the applicable points:

Price, cost, and value are not the same thing; however, in a functional system of mutual trade to mutual benefit, they are closely related. If the thing is becoming scarcer because the gap between supply and demand is increasing, the price will go up as a message to the consumer that the scarcity of the thing has increased.

When some force, usually in the form of government, compels a vendor to ration items, or to limit prices, the system is no longer about mutual exchange to mutual benefit. It has become dysfunctional, shredding the relationship between price, cost, and value. The price of an item no longer communicates the scarcity to the consumer. This increases the risk that hoarders and black-marketeers will buy up all the stock in a short amount of time, leaving the shelves bare, and leaving people in crisis with far fewer options. This will in turn lead to more desperation and lawlessness, not less.

In short: price gouging is not evil, though radically increased prices may shock and offend our sensibilities during a crisis, lulled as we are by generations of living in the stability of the largest economy in the world. On the other hand, anti-price gouging and rationing laws just might be evil, because they create more harm than they cure – by causing or exacerbating  shortages in the guise of mollifying the unthinking and easily offended.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s