California’s Terrible Price-Gouging Law Puts Markets at Mercy of Ambitious Prosecutors

“Value grocery chain Smart & Final has agreed to pay California $175,000 because, between March and June 2020, it increased the price of four different types of eggs during a period in which stores were struggling to keep their shelves stocked.

This was in the early days of the pandemic, when Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom  declared a state of emergency. That declaration triggered California’s “price-gouging” law, which says that businesses cannot raise prices by more than 10 percent during state emergencies unless they can prove the price increase is due to increased production or labor costs. According to Attorney General Rob Bonta, Smart & Final raised prices for some eggs by as much as 25 percent.

The Los Angeles Times notes that Smart & Final did have a reason for raising the prices—suppliers were also jacking up prices of eggs. But apparently Smart & Final acknowledged that suppliers were raising the prices of “standard” eggs, and that the chain commensurately raised the price of “premium” eggs.

Laws against price-gouging are bad, wrong, and counter-productive, and Bonta’s own observations about this case, quoted by the Times, explain why. He notes that, “When California first went into lockdown at the beginning of the pandemic, there was a run on essential supplies, and unfortunately, some businesses saw this as an opportunity to pad their bottom line.”

“While these were premium products, remember that during this time, shelves were often bare, there weren’t a lot of choices. Consumers had few, if any options.”

This is an economically illiterate grasp of why stores jack up prices in a crisis situation. The “run on essential supplies” caused absurd amounts of hoarding and over-purchasing, which many customers were able to do largely because stores were prohibited from raising prices. That sharp increase in demand travels up the supply chain, ultimately leading to some combination of empty shelves and higher prices as suppliers ramp up production.

Price-gouging laws simply attempt to legislate away basic economics at the retail point, and the end result is reasonable prices for goods that are seldom or never available. It doesn’t matter how much eggs cost when a supermarket doesn’t have any in stock. If people actually had to pay more for goods in an emergency situation, they’d be more careful about what they bought and we wouldn’t have had people pushing entire carts of toilet paper out of the grocery stores (and then attempting to resell them online).

The way Bonta describes the store’s situation is that people were buying the more expensive premium eggs due to shortages of the standard eggs. The same demand issues were most certainly going to come into play if people continued to purchase the premium eggs at the same rate they purchased the standard eggs.”

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