The Gazette Editorial Board recently criticized the Texas anti-price-gouging law that imposes severe penalties for jacking up prices on goods during a disaster emergency. In presenting three options the board failed to consider a hybrid plan that achieves the necessary government goals of helping the largest number of people possible by preventing panic buying and hoarding.
The Gazette wrote, "Exploiting disasters for expedient gain is immoral and unconscionable. That doesn't mean we should eliminate the option of raising prices to prevent wasteful consumption and protect the interests of those at the back of the line. Leave all options on the table, hoping most will try to serve the best interests of humanity during times of crisis."
The key to just and reasonable anti-gouging laws is the nature of the emergency involved. It is proper for government to control price gouging on essential survival goods in order to protect the lives and safety of the maximum number of people in the short term.
Clean water is absolutely critical to both individual survival and to preventing disease and the spread of disease as well as injury from drinking contaminated water. People can only survive for a few days without potable water and drinking contaminated water can lead to death and disease, which can quickly spread.
Fuel is an essential survival good where evacuations are necessary so that as many people as possible can leave the immediate danger zone. In most cases this means traveling less than 100 miles to a place of safety, though not necessarily a place where one can reside for any length of time. The critical need however is to get people outside of the danger zone as efficiently as possible.
Fuel is also a necessary rescue resource, as we see in Houston with the "Cajun Navy" and flotillas of private watercraft engaged in active rescue activities. Government cannot permit price gouging where fuel is needed for immediate rescue and preservation of life. Eminent domain authorizes government to simply take such resources as needed and compensate the owner at a later date, and that would justify a law prohibiting price gouging on fuel used by rescuers.
Therefore, such laws should be crafted only to prohibit price increases during government-declared disaster emergencies on essential survival goods which should include fuel, water, medicine and a few select staple food items like bread and cheese, and perhaps a very few other critical goods.
In addition, such laws should require sellers of those essential survival goods to limit the amounts they sell to any one individual, family or vehicle at any one time to prevent panic buying and hoarding after the emergency has been declared.
This would mean, for example, that gas stations could only sell a limited, government mandated amount of fuel for any one vehicle sufficient to allow the average vehicle to travel a predetermined distance out of the immediate danger zone. This suggests that under an emergency declaration each purchase would be limited to no more than 10 gallons per purchaser.
By crafting the law to apply only to essential survival goods the government exercises its right under eminent domain and emergency powers to ensure that the largest number of people possible are able to receive at least some amount of those goods in order to preserve life and get the maximum number of people out of the evacuation zone as is possible.
For non-evacuation situations like Houston, where people must shelter in place, the law can stipulate that the limits on water and staples apply on a daily basis. People would get one day's rations from local vendors until the food and water runs out. Hopefully by then FEMA and other agencies will have opened the spigot on federal relief supplies and private charity will have time to respond as it is doing today with donations of canned water and other supplies now en route to the area.
A general law such as the one Texas has that merely seeks to punish people after the fact doesn't really solve the problem of panic buying and hoarding even at regular retail prices. A carefully tailored law regulating the dispensing of essential survival goods addresses all the issues the Gazette mentions and should be crafted and implemented in Colorado.
Readers can contact Scott Weiser at firstname.lastname@example.org.