As the northeastern United States continues to recover from Hurricane Sandy, we hear the usual outcry against individuals and companies who dare to charge market prices for goods such as gasoline. The normal market response of rising prices in the wake of a natural disaster and resulting supply disruptions is redefined as "price gouging." The government claims that price gouging is the charging of ruinous or exploitative prices for goods in short supply in the wake of a disaster and is a heinous crime But does this reflect economic reality, or merely political posturing to capitalize on raw emotions?
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the supply of gasoline was greatly disrupted. Many gas stations were unable to pump gas due to a lack of electricity, thus greatly reducing the supply. At the same time demand for gasoline spiked due to the widespread use of generators. Because gas stations were forbidden from raising their prices to meet the increased demand, miles-long lines developed and stations were forced to start limiting the amount of gasoline that individuals could purchase. New Jersey gas stations began to look like Soviet grocery stores.
Had gas stations been allowed to raise their prices to reflect the increased demand for gasoline, only those most in need of gasoline would have purchased gas, while everyone would have economized on their existing supply. But because prices remained lower than they should have been, no one sought to conserve gas. Low prices signaled that gas was in abundant supply, while reality was exactly the opposite, and only those fortunate enough to be at the front of gas lines were able to purchase gas before it sold out. Not surprisingly, a thriving black market developed, with gas offered for up to $20 per gallon.
With price controls in effect, supply shortages were exacerbated. If prices had been allowed to increase to market levels, the profit opportunity would have brought in new supplies from outside the region. As supplies increased, prices gradually would have decreased as supply and demand returned to equilibrium. But with price controls in effect, what company would want to deal with the hassle of shipping gas to a disaster-stricken area with downed power lines and flooded highways when the same profit could be made elsewhere? So instead of gas shipments flooding into the disaster zones, what little gas supply is left is rapidly sold and consumed.
Governments fail to understand that prices are not just random numbers. Prices perform an important role in providing information, coordinating supply and demand, and enabling economic calculation. When government interferes with the price mechanism, economic calamity ensues. Price controls on gasoline led to the infamous gas lines of the 1970s, yet politicians today repeat those same failed mistakes. Instituting price caps at a below-market price will always lead to shortages. No act of any legislature can reverse the laws of supply and demand.
History shows us that the quickest path to economic recovery is to abolish all price controls. If governments really want to aid recovery, they would abolish their "price-gouging" legislation and allow the free market to function.