A Smithian Look at Price-Gouging

As Hurricane Harvey hits Houston, Texas has invoked its price-gouging legislation, preventing prices from rising to meet the new levels of supply and demand.  As usual, lots of ink has been spilled by economists denouncing this legislation (for example, see here, here, and here).  On a recent post, Mark Perry asks: “It’s really not that complicated is it, to understand the adverse consequences of anti-price-gouging laws?”

Part of the issue is the price theory arguments against price-gouging are not complicated, but they are subtle.

I think the other issue is people take the positive analysis of economics and try to impute normative analysis onto it. That prices rise when demand rises/supply falls is neither good nor bad. It just is. Just like the sun rising in the East and setting in the West is neither good nor bad. It just is.

However, people will take this positive and try to make it normative. It is “bad” prices rise and people profit off of the suffering of others. Or it is “good” prices rise and lure in profit-seeking individuals and that increases supply.

These normative imputations get problematic because it is trying to answer a different question than the one originally posted. The question is not “how should people act when disaster strikes” (the normative) but rather “how to allocate needed resources to disaster areas” (the positive). Giving a normative answer to a positive question is neither helpful or insightful.

This is not to say that there is no room for the normative. I think that is an important aspect. Should people raise prices during disasters? Should there be discounts for those in absolute need? I think the answers to these two question is “yes.” I think Adam Smith’s “impartial spectator”  would be pleased to see prices rise in order to attract more goods/services to where they are needed, but also to see prices not rise (a discount) to those in absolute need. Indeed, the impartial spectator may frown if prices are “gouged” for those in the most need.

But does the disapproval of the impartial spectator, (“The heart of every impartial spectator rejects all fellow-feeling with the selfishness of his [the price-gouger’s, in this case] motives,” to use Smith’s words [The Theory of Moral Sentiments, page 78.3]), necessarily imply the need to anti-gouging laws? I’d argue “no.” Punitive legislation, Smith (and I) argue exists to serve justice:

“Resentment seems to have been given us by nature for defense, and for defense only.  It is the safeguard of justice and the security of innocence.  It prompts us to beat off the mischief which is attempted to be done to us, and to retaliate that which is already done; that the offender may be made to repent of his injustice, and that others, through fear of the like punishment, may be terrified from being guilty of the like offense.  It must be reserved therefore for these purposes, nor can the spectator ever go along with it when it is exerted for any other.  But the mere want of the beneficent virtues, though it may disappoint us of the good which might reasonably be expected, neither does, nor attempts to do, any mischief from which we may have occasion to defend ourselves (page 79.4).”

And the violation of justice is injury, that is: “it does real and positive hurt to some particular persons, from motives which are naturally disapproved of (page 79.5).” Since the price-gouger’s actions do no real and positive harm or a person, he cannot be punished: “To oblige him by force [ie, by legislation] to perform what in gratitude he ought to perform, and what every impartial spectator would approve of him performing, would, if possible, be still more improper than his neglecting him to perform it (page 78.3-79.3).”*

In short, the anti-gouging legislation both cause economic problems by creating shortages of much-needed supplies when they are already extremely scarce, but also invoke an injustice upon the society by punishing people, by inflicting harm on people, when no real and positive harm has been done.

*Nota bene: This conversation here revolves around price-gouging in general.  We could carve out all kinds of exceptions here that would allow for punitive legislation, but we are discussing the general case, not specifics.