Thursday, September 15, 2005

Gouge Away!

A week ago, John Stossel put down his well-thumbed copy of Atlas Shrugged (sorry, he actually referred to Adam Smith) to sing the praises of price gouging. That's right. You see the idea is that if a storeowner radically raises the price of goods during a time of crisis, only those who really need said goods will purchase them, effectively allowing for the fair distribution of the same goods. Well, let's let him do the splainin':
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.
The price gouger's "exploitation" saves your child! Touches the heart don't it? Well, when you've put down your tear-soaked tissue, consider this alternate scenario:

You're thirsty and you need water for your self and for your new-born baby. You find a convenience store that's open and you discover it has a single six-pack of bottled water left. How much? $20. It's a lot, but you do have a single twenty left and maybe you can make the water last a couple of days.

Just as you pick up the pack and head to the counter, you hear a screech of rubber outside. A Humvee pulls to a stop and a big guy wearing a Polo shirt and a Rolex jumps out.

"How much for that water?" he yells before he even gets into the store.

The store manager looks at you. Looks at the Humvee guy.

"Twenty dollars," he says. "But this is the last pack and the lady is about to buy it."

"I'll give you $200," the guy says.

The store manager looks at you. He looks at Humvee guy. He looks at the well-thumbed copy of Atlas Shrugged on the counter before him (or his clipping of John Stossel's stirring article) and he remembers the merits of acting selfishly.

"OK, $200 it is. Sorry lady."

The Humvee guy pays up, jumps in his vehicle and speeds off to safety. The price gouger has saved the Hummer guy a stop on the way to his second home up in the mountains! You return to the street to see if you can find any puddle water clean enough to drink.

Stirring, isn't it! That's the triumph of unchecked capitalism, Mr. Stossel. Or, at least, that scenario's just as likely as yours.

(I'd also suggest Stossel read Jose Saramego's Blindness for a much more likely depiction of how folks might act during a time of national disaster.)

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