The basic imperative to allocate goods efficiently doesn’t vanish in a storm or other crisis. If anything, it becomes more important. And price controls in an emergency have the same results as they do any other time: They lead to shortages and overconsumption. Letting merchants raise prices if they think customers will be willing to pay more isn’t a concession to greed. Rather, it creates much-needed incentives for people to think harder about what they really need and appropriately rewards vendors who manage their inventories well.
Indeed, many of the problems associated with weather emergencies are precisely caused by the fact that we can’t count on shops to “gouge” their customers. I live in a neighborhood with buried power lines in a building that contains a supermarket on the ground floor. But I nonetheless found myself stuck in line Sunday evening at the Safeway stockpiling emergency supplies just in case something went badly wrong and knocked power out throughout the city. The issue wasn’t that I wouldn’t be able to get to the store in a worst-case scenario, as that I was afraid other people would already have bought up all the stuff. And indeed, by the time I made it, the shelves had been largely denuded of essentials such as bottled water, canned soup, batteries, and Diet Coke. Greater flexibility to raise prices would not only tend to curb overconsumption directly by encouraging people to buy less, it would inspire confidence that shortages wouldn’t arise, reducing the tendency toward panicky preemptive hoarding.
Last but by no means least, more price gouging would greatly improve inventory management. There is a large class of goods—flashlights, snow shovels, sand bags—for which demand is highly irregular. Maintaining large inventories of these items is, on most days, a costly misuse of storage space. If retailers can earn windfall profits when demand for them spikes, that creates a situation in which it makes financial sense to keep them on hand. Trying to curtail price gouging does the reverse.
Some sense from Slate. Via Sandy price gouging: Anti-gouging laws make natural disasters worse. – Slate Magazine.