Price gouging-moral insights from economics

Dwight Lee in the current issue of Regulation magazine offers “The Two Moralities of Outlawing Price Gouging.” In the article Lee endorsed economists’ traditional arguments against laws prohibiting price gouging, but argued efficiency claims aren’t persuasive to most people as they fail to address the moral issues raised surrounding treatment of victims of disasters.

Lee wrote, “Economists’ best hope for making an effective case against anti-price-gouging laws requires considering two moralities—one intention-based, the other outcome-based—that work together to improve human behavior when each is applied within its proper sphere of human activity.”

Intention-based morality, that realm of neighbors-helping-neighbors and the outpouring of charitable donations from near and far, is good and useful and honorable, said Lee, who term this as “magnanimous morality.” Such morality works great in helping family and friends and, because of the close relationship, naturally has a good idea of just what help may be needed and when and where.

When large scale disasters overwhelm the limited capabilities of the friends and families of victims, large-scale charity kicks in. Charity is the extended version magnanimous morality, but it comes a knowledge problem: how does the charity identify who needs help, and what kind, and when, and where?

The second morality that Lee’s title referenced is the morality of “respecting the rights of others and abiding by general rules such as those necessary for impersonal market exchange.” This “mundane morality” of merely respecting rules does not strike most people as too compelling, Lee observed, but economists know how powerful a little self-interest and local knowledge can be in a world in which rights are respected. Indeed, the vast successes of the modern world–extreme poverty declining, billions fed well enough, life-expectancy and literacy rising, disease rates dropping–can be attributed primarily to the social cooperation enabled by local knowledge and voluntary interaction guided by prices and profits. The value of mundane morality after a disaster is that it puts this same vast power to work in aid of recovery.

The two moralities work together Lee said. Even as friends and families reach out in magnanimous morality, perhaps each making significant sacrifices to aid those in need, the price changes produced by mundane morality will engage millions of people more to make small adjustments similarly in aid. A gasoline price increase in New Jersey after Sandy’s flooding could trickle outward and lead gasoline consumers in Pittsburgh or Chicago to cut back consumption just a little so New Jerseyans could get a little more. Similarly for gallons of water or loaves of bread or flashlights or hundreds of other goods. Millions of people beyond the magnanimous responders get pulled into helping out, even if unknowingly.

Or they would have, had prices been free to adjust. New Jersey laws prohibit significant price increases after a disaster, and post-Sandy the state has persecuted merchants who it has judged as running afoul of the price gouging law.

Surely victims of a disaster appreciate the help that comes from people who care, but they just as surely appreciate the unintended bounty that comes from that system of voluntary social interaction guided by prices and profits called the market. Laws against post-disaster price increases obstruct the workings of mundane morality, increase the burden faced by the magnanimous, and reduce the flow of resources into disaster-struck regions.

Perhaps you think that government can fill the gap? Lee noted that restricting the workings of mundane morality increases the importance of political influence and social connections, but adds the shift is unlikely to benefit the poor. On this point a few New Jersey anecdotes may inform. See these stories on public assistance in the state:

We often honor the magnanimous, but we need not honor the mundane morality-inspired benefactors of disaster victims.  While the mundanely-moral millions may provide more help in the aggregate than the magnanimous few, the millions didn’t sacrifice intentionally. They just did the locally sensible thing given their local knowledge and normal self-awareness; doing the locally sensible thing is its own reward.

We need not honor the mundanely moral, but we also ought not block them from helping.

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One thought on “Price gouging-moral insights from economics

  1. One of my favorite stories about price gouging was the reaction of Florida after one of its hurricanes (Andrew, I think). People in Georgia were loading up their pickup trucks with portable generators and similar goods, and then heading towards the disaster. They were greeted at the border by Florida state police, who turned them away on suspicion of intent to engage in price gouging — which, itself, was not even illegal. So who was acting morally and charitably, the guys with the generators or the guys with the guns? How is it moral to deny people, in their hour of greatest need, the bounty that markets can provide?

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