Issues & Insights

COVID-19 Panic Buying Reminds Us ‘Price Gouging’ Is Good

I&I Editorial

Anxious consumers across the country are raiding stores, emptying entire shelves of paper products, pain killers, soap, hand sanitizers, and frozen food. In response, some states are invoking anti-price gouging laws. Others will follow. All will make matters worse.

Attorney General Mark Herring from Virginia, where Gov. Ralph Northam has declared a state of emergency, is asking “all Virginians to pay attention to any prices that seem too high, and contact my office as soon as possible if you think someone may be illegally overcharging for necessary goods.”

New York Attorney General Letitia James told National Public Radio Friday that her office had “issued a total of six letters to merchants for price gouging of hand sanitizers and disinfectant sprays.”

These are just a couple of a number of states in which anti-price gouging laws are in effect or where the attorney general is making threats against sellers who would charge market prices for goods. We can expect others, whipped into a frenzy by ignorant and irresponsible media reports, as well as the usual “public interest” agitators, to do the same.

And it all sounds so consumer friendly. After all, who wants to pay $79 for hand sanitizer?

Cracking down on market prices, which, whether we like them or not, are often higher than we are comfortable with and sometimes higher than we can pay, might feel good. But doing so will not restock vacant shelves. It will only keep them empty.

While it is counterintuitive to most, the reality is that price gouging is “a life-saving market mechanism.”

“When a disaster is incoming, such as a hurricane or a blizzard, people will see others at grocery stores stocking up on water and other essentials,” explains T.J. Roberts, writing for the Mises Institute.

“They will, however, purchase too much if the price stays the same. Whereas a storm and its immediate aftermath may last for a few days, people will purchase enough to last them for months, resulting in shortages.”

When government doesn’t distort markets with price ceilings, price signals tell sellers where they should ship their goods. If a lumber company, for instance, sees prices for plywood rising due to increased demand in coastal areas threatened by a storm, it will divert to those zones inventory that would otherwise be shipped elsewhere.

“Higher prices during emergencies attract resources,” says economist David Henderson, “from other parts of the country.”

Artificially holding down prices also discourages valuable entrepreneurship. In times of normal pricing, it makes no economic sense to spend more to move goods to a market than will be reaped in revenue. But in moments of crisis, it makes economic sense for enterprising souls to rush scarce goods to affected areas if they are allowed by government to profit from their efforts.

One of the most absurd and infuriating stories that illustrates how foolish it is to crack down on entrepreneurship comes from 2005’s Hurricane Katrina disaster.

When John Shepperson saw many had lost power from the storm and needed generators to restore electricity to their homes, he was inspired. The Kentucky resident bought 19 generators, rented a truck, and drove “600 miles to a part of Mississippi that had no electricity,” John Stossel reported. While he could have probably charged more, he offered to sell the generators for twice what he paid for them.

“People were eager to buy,” says Stossel. “But Mississippi police said that was illegal.”

So Shepperson was arrested for the crime of selling a legal good to willing buyers.

Who, then, benefited from Mississippi’s anti-price gouging law? Not those who needed power. The police confiscated Shepperson’s generators, said economist Mark J. Perry, and they “never made it to consumers with urgent needs who desperately wanted to buy them.”

Giving in to emotion and demanding that government control prices is dangerous, as is ignorance of basic economics. But both go to work during times of crisis. This shouldn’t happen in an advanced nation, yet it does and it’s as predictable as Earth’s rotation. If we had learned an elementary lesson decades ago, as we should have, there’d be fewer scenes of shoppers brawling and screaming at each other because the risk of shortages would be reduced.

— Written by J. Frank Bullitt

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The Issues and Insights Editorial Board has decades of experience in journalism, commentary and public policy.


  • All well and good when the crisis is regional. Then goods can be diverted. Not so much when crisis is national.

  • I would like to report Apple for the price gouging on their iPhone.
    I would like to report the federal government for their price gouging of the taxpayer.

  • This makes so much sense, which is why government wonks do the opposite. They are allowing shortages to happen. People are creatures of human nature. Survival instinct kicks (I know, TP, really?) and it’s “every man for himself.”

  • From experience, I concur with this commentary. In 2004, 2 hurricanes hit our coastal FL town, wiping out or causing many leaking roofs, mostly then covered with blue tarps to slow down the leaking during later rain storms. Having grown up in FL, with previous hurricanes, roofers and materials came from other states to work and repair roofs at a premium. Homeowners hired them at their own risk. In a few months, leaking roofs were restored, some people paying extra to have the work completed sooner. Gov’t stepped in and said this would not be allowed. So in our town after the 2004 hurricanes, it was years before the blue tarps number started to be noticeably diminished. “The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal.” -Aristotle Clearly this is not a new concept.

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