Massive shortages happened almost instantly when it became clear that the coronavirus would require a nationwide lockdown. Grocery stores almost instantly cleared out of frozen foods, non-perishables, hand sanitizer, and, bizarrely, toilet paper. Stores dealt with the shortages in different ways. But one of those ways, raising prices, is almost universally unpopular. In fact, 36 states have anti-price gouging legislation on the books. Both Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and an Amazon vice president have called for federal price gouging legislation.
In a new paper, I explain that price gouging legislation is a bad idea, regardless of one’s feelings about price gouging. The main reasons are:
- Private companies have their own anti-price gouging responses. Moreover, they can evolve in ways regulation cannot, and more quickly. For example, Amazon’s artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms for policing price gouging among its third-party sellers turned out to have unintended consequences. But unlike Congress, they don’t have to wait until the political winds blow just right before doing something about it. Part of trial is error, and that’s okay. Without mistakes, there is no learning.
- Price controls make shortages worse.
- Rent-seeking. Big companies such as Amazon have already invested in AI algorithms and other anti-price gouging measures to prevent their third-party sellers from price gouging. Their smaller competitors have not. Amazon’s call for federal legislation likely has a bit more than good PR behind it.
- Anti-price gouging measures don’t actually reduce prices. They reduce money prices at a tradeoff: non-money prices go up even more. These non-money price increases include worse shortages, longer searches, waiting lines, longer shipping times, lower quality, and in some cases, more black market activity.
- There is no objectively correct mix of money- and non-money prices during a crisis. Different people have different needs and different preferences. Legislation, by imposing one single standard, does no favors to people’s diverse situations.