Elizabeth Brake on price gouging (in Economics and Philosophy)
October 27, 2021
In the latest issue of Economics and Philosophy (37/3, November 2021), Elizabeth Brake (Rice University) examines one of the most controversial topics in the ethical analysis of market behavior. In her article "Price Gouging and the Duty of Easy Rescue," Brake surveys the standard economic and ethical arguments for and against the practice, and suggests a novel ethical argument against it: that it violates our obligation to help people in emergency situations when it is of little cost to us. This position is usually associated with utilitarianism, thanks to Peter Singer, but can also be derived from various forms of deontology (although the positive nature of the duty may demand an extra step) as well as virtue ethics.
Brake makes a legal case as well as an ethical one, arguing that there is a basis in law for enforcement of a duty of easy rescue in such cases where price gouging arises. As she acknowledges, this is a more difficult case to make, because a legal duty normally implies a right that is violated, and a legal right to assistance is not generally recognized, however dire one's circumstances. She suggests several alternative ways of justifying a limited prohibition of price gouging based on legal duty of easy rescue, such as considering it as part of the regulation of market activity in the public interest, in which businesses are prohibited from harmful practices.
There is much more in Brake's paper than I can discuss here and it rewards a careful reading. For instance, she does address the economic benefits of price gouging, such as increasing supply of much-needed goods to disaster-stricken areas, and her ethical and legal analysis does allow for price increases to cover legitimate costs and risk. Her argument is against "pure" profiteering only, claiming that the seller's interest in higher profit does not justify holding disaster victim's interest in survival hostage to negotiations over price. Related to this, Brake also notes that market conditions are far from ideal in disasters, so we should not assume the same quality of consent, or use the same standards of coercion or duress, when evaluating transactions offered or made in such a context.
(For more of Brake's work on disaster ethics, see the dedicated page at her website.)