Price Gouging in Literature: Little House on the Prairie’s “The Long Winter”

Michael Giberson

Jeremy’s Blog at comments on a price gouging episode in The Long Winter, the sixth book in the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Due to a long winter of snow and storms, the people in the town of De Smet are at the point of starving.  Suddenly the shop owner in town has a large supply of wheat at his disposal and rather than selling it for the normal mark-up amount above costs, he decides to sell each bushel for over two times what he paid.

After Loftus, the store owner, states “That wheat’s mine and I’ve got a right to charge any prices I want to for it.”  Pa Ingalls responds:

“That’s so, Loftus, you have,”…”This is a free country and every man’s got a right to do as he pleases with his own property.”  He said to the crowd, “You know that’s a fact, boys”.

… However, Pa decided to use persuasion to get the store owner to lower the price.  In addition to petitioning the humanitarian side of the business owner, Pa also goes on to state:

Don’t forget every one of us is free and independent, Loftus.  This winter won’t last forever and maybe you want us to go on doing business after it’s over…  You’ve got us down now.  That’s your business, as you say.  But your business depends on our good will.  You maybe don’t notice that now, but along next summer you’ll likely notice it.

Loftus decided to sell the wheat at cost, due to persuasion and not force.

I haven’t read the Little House on the Prairie books myself, so I can’t authoritatively comment on what market alternatives the people of De Smet may have the next summer. But the small group scenario posed in the story may reasonably support different conclusions about the prudence of price increases under difficult market conditions than might be reached when considering more anonymous consumer-retailer interactions under typical conditions today.

QUIRKY NOTE: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter Rose, who was born in De Smet in 1886, became a prominent and noted early libertarian.  (Consider this story of a state trooper appearing at Rose Wilder Lane’s door in response to a postcard objecting to Social Security. Not the most significant event, but clearly she was a lively character.)

(HT to my brother Todd for mentioning the price gouging post.)