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Low prices say, ‘Take all you want, there’s plenty more.‘”

— Duke economist Michael Munger

See the prices marked on those shelves above? They say infinity!

Nothing drives economists crazy like anti-price “gouging” sentiment, and especially politicians who play on it. Hoarders hoard under such laws precisely because prices are too low given demand and supply conditions. Scarcity is defined by demand relative to supply, and freely adjusting prices register the degree of scarcity quite well. To what purpose? First, to ration available supplies; second, to encourage conservation; third, to incentivize producers to bring more product to market.

But when hoarders hoard, does that not create artificial scarcity? No, because the scarcity itself was already a condition, or else the hoarder would not have acted. And the hoarder would not have acted if developing conditions of scarcity had not been contradicted by the low price.

But what if the hoarders are mere speculators? Doesn’t that prove their actions create artificial scarcity? No, again, scarce conditions existed. Speculators don’t speculate to lose money, and they would certainly lose money if they buy when a product is not truly in short supply relative to demand. Speculators operate on the principle of arbitrage: transacting in response to profit opportunities created by gaps between prices and real value. Markets tend to eliminate such opportunities. Anti-“gouging” laws create them in times of crisis.

Should we demand that respiratory therapists not accept higher offers to practice in areas hit hard by the coronavirus? That bears a certain equivalence to laws preventing retailers from raising prices sufficiently to discourage hoarding. After all, retailers know that their dwindling inventory has gained value in a crisis situation, just as the respiratory therapist knows that her services have gained value in a world ravaged by a lung-damaging viral disease. Should we arrest her?

In a functioning market, the respiratory therapist, the retailer, and producers who supply the retailer would all earn more based on the true value of their skills, inventories, or ability to produce. These parties get to keep any premium they earn when conditions create more scarcity. Speculators however, generally don’t share their gains with the producer, which some find regrettable. (In fact, commodity speculators often provide valuable hedging opportunities for suppliers, so my last statement is not quite true.) Nevertheless, speculators serve a valuable function because they often provide the first source of information about changes in scarcity. That information, the price signal, has social value because it embeds incentives for conservation and added production.

Yes, retailers should be able to restock with some time. But it can fairly be said they did not react quickly enough to the “demand shock” caused by the range of precautions taken in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps retailers placed additional orders with suppliers in an effort to deal with the crisis, and some might have hiked certain prices marginally. I don’t know. However, it’s certain they were chastened in their price response by fears of damaging their public image, and even cowed by short-sighted laws and regulations in some cases. It doesn’t take much imagination, however, to think of ways they might have be able to deal with crisis conditions via pricing policy, such as charging quantity premiums: first package of TP at regular price, second at 2x regular price, three-plus at 10x regular price.

As J.D. Tucille says, people think of price “gouging” as a matter of degree. But at what threshold does price flexibility become inappropriate as conditions of scarcity change? No price controller can tell you exactly. That’s a good reason to eschew shortage-inducing pricing laws. Is it fair when prices rise drastically? Well, the price is infinite when the shelf is empty. Is that fair? Better let markets do their job.