As a resident of Florida, I was naturally concerned about how the state would be impacted by Hurricane Dorian. But now that the storm has passed, I am still concerned about something that happened in Florida after Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency on Wednesday, August 28, for several counties in the hurricane’s path.
But first note that according to Florida Statutes, Title XXXIII, “REGULATION OF TRADE, COMMERCE, INVESTMENTS, AND SOLICITATIONS,” Chapter 501, “CONSUMER PROTECTION,” Section 160, “Rental or sale of essential commodities during a declared state of emergency; prohibition against unconscionable prices”:
(1) As used in this section:
(a) “Commodity” means any goods, services, materials, merchandise, supplies, equipment, resources, or other article of commerce, and includes, without limitation, food, water, ice, chemicals, petroleum products, and lumber necessary for consumption or use as a direct result of the emergency.
(b) It is prima facie evidence that a price is unconscionable if:
1. The amount charged represents a gross disparity between the price of the commodity or rental or lease of any dwelling unit or self-storage facility that is the subject of the offer or transaction and the average price at which that commodity or dwelling unit or self-storage facility was rented, leased, sold, or offered for rent or sale in the usual course of business during the 30 days immediately prior to a declaration of a state of emergency, unless the increase in the amount charged is attributable to additional costs incurred in connection with the rental or sale of the commodity or rental or lease of any dwelling unit or self-storage facility, or regional, national, or international market trends; or
2. The amount charged grossly exceeds the average price at which the same or similar commodity was readily obtainable in the trade area during the 30 days immediately prior to a declaration of a state of emergency, unless the increase in the amount charged is attributable to additional costs incurred in connection with the rental or sale of the commodity or rental or lease of any dwelling unit or self-storage facility, or regional, national, or international market trends.
(2) Upon a declaration of a state of emergency by the Governor, it is unlawful and a violation of s. 501.204 for a person or her or his agent or employee to rent or sell or offer to rent or sell at an unconscionable price within the area for which the state of emergency is declared, any essential commodity including, but not limited to, supplies, services, provisions, or equipment that is necessary for consumption or use as a direct result of the emergency. This prohibition is effective not to exceed 60 days under the initial declared state of emergency as defined in s. 252.36(2) and shall be renewed by statement in any subsequent renewals of the declared state of emergency by the Governor.
What happened in Florida was that Attorney General Ashley Moody activated the state’s “price gouging hotline” so residents could report businesses violating the state’s price gouging law if they charged “too much” for lodging or goods during the period of the state of emergency. Business caught charging elevated prices for goods, could face “civil penalties of $1,000 per violation and up to a total of $25,000 for multiple violations committed in a single 24-hour period.”
The Attorney General’s office says that more than 2,000 cases of price gouging were reported. Typical commodities involved are water and gasoline.
Now, there are many economic arguments in defense of price gouging:
- Higher prices help prevent a handful of consumers from hoarding the majority of supplies.
- Higher prices create incentives for suppliers of goods to help to restore people’s lives.
- Higher prices encourage conservation among end users.
- High prices can bring much-needed supplies into a disaster zone.
- Higher prices send a signal to market actors that something is scarce and that profits are available to those who produce or sell that something.
- Higher prices set off an economic chain reaction that ultimately remedies the shortages that led to the price gouging in the first place.
- Higher prices tell suppliers what their customers want most.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that it is just, right, moral, or ethical to raise prices on essential goods and services during the time before a hurricane hits. It just means that it should not be against the law. If you don’t like the price of a gallon of gas at your local gas station during the time that a hurricane is approaching, then you can choose to not only not purchase your gas there, but also to never patronize that particular gas station again. What you should not have the option of doing is calling a price gouging hotline and having the state fine the business and force it to lower its prices.
Economic considerations aside, there is an important philosophical reason why I write in defense of price gouging.
Now, just like anyone else, I wouldn’t want to have to pay higher prices for batteries, flashlights, candles, water, ice, a generator, plywood, gas, or food while I was in the midst of preparing for a hurricane to come ashore. Just like I wouldn’t want to have to pay higher prices for these things next week, next month, or next year. And like anyone else, I even look for lower prices. But there is a bigger picture here.
The ability of a business to raise or lower its prices on a particular good or on all the goods it sells is one of the essential things that distinguishes a free market from government central planning. The reason why a business raises or lowers its prices is absolutely irrelevant.
Free and unfettered interaction between producers and consumers, buyers and sellers, lessors and lessees, owners and renters, and businesses and customers is always to be preferred to government intervention.
Once it is accepted that the government has the authority, knowledge, and competence to establish arbitrary price ceilings during the onset or aftermath of a natural disaster, no reasonable or logical argument can be made against the government’s setting prices during ordinary times.
Price-gouging laws are an assault on private property, free exchange, freedom of contract, free enterprise, free markets, and a free society.