Politicians and the media are furious about price increases in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. They want gas stations and water sellers punished.
If you want to score points cracking down on mean, greedy profiteers, pushing anti-"gouging" rules is a very good thing.
But if you're one of the people the law "protects" from "price gouging," you won't fare as well.
Consider this scenario: You are thirsty -- worried that your baby is going to become dehydrated. You find a store that's open, and the storeowner thinks it's immoral to take advantage of your distress, so he won't charge you a dime more than he charged last week. But you can't buy water from him. It's sold out.
You continue on your quest, and finally find that dreaded monster, the price gouger. He offers a bottle of water that cost $1 last week at an "outrageous" price -- say $20. You pay it to survive the disaster.
You resent the price gouger. But if he hadn't demanded $20, he'd have been out of water. It was the price gouger's "exploitation" that saved your child.
It saved her because people look out for their own interests. Before you got to the water seller, other people did. At $1 a bottle, they stocked up. At $20 a bottle, they bought more cautiously. By charging $20, the price gouger makes sure his water goes to those who really need it.
The people the softheaded politicians think are cruelest are doing the most to help. Assuming the demand for bottled water was going to go up, they bought a lot of it, planning to resell it at a steep profit. If they hadn't done that, that water would not have been available for the people who need it the most.
Might the water have been provided by volunteers? Certainly some people help others out of benevolence. But we can't count on benevolence. As Adam Smith wrote, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest."
Consider the storeowner's perspective: If he's not going to make a big profit, why open up the store at all? Staying in a disaster area is dangerous and means giving up the opportunity to be with family in order to take care of the needs of strangers. Why take the risk?
Any number of services -- roofing, for example, carpentry, or tree removal -- are in overwhelming demand after a disaster. When the time comes to rebuild New Orleans, it's safe to predict a shortage of local carpenters: The city's own population of carpenters won't be enough.
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