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Letter: To fight shortages, let prices rise

The Detroit News

Shelves have emptied across the state and country as nervous Americans stockpile toilet paper, hand sanitizer and other supplies. This kind of panic buying has a certain perverse logic: We would all be better off if everyone bought only enough for their immediate needs, but if we all try to stockpile, we create the very shortage we fear. 

As professional economists, we have shocking advice to break this cycle and keep supplies on the shelf: Raise prices on items in high demand. Michigan’s attorney general, by contrast, is worsening shortages by threatening businesses that raise prices more than a modest amount (“Nessel warns Michigan businesses not to price gouge, violate crowd rules,” March 15).

Nearly empty shelves are seen in a supermarket in Washington, D.C., Friday.

This policy misapplies our moral intuitions and actually harms the public.

One on one, it’s indeed wrong to take advantage of someone’s desperation to drive a hard bargain. In an open market with competition, though, a shortage is telling us that the price needs to be higher for the common good.

Higher prices would induce people to cut back panic buying and leave enough on the shelf for others. Businesses would shift into even higher gear to produce scarce goods.

Shelves that held hand sanitizer and hand soap are mostly empty at a Target in Jersey City, N.J., Tuesday, March 3, 2020. Fear of the coronavirus has led people to stock up on hand sanitizer, leaving store shelves empty and online retailers with sky-high prices set by those trying to profit on the rush.

Though the poor are less able to pay higher prices, guaranteeing empty shelves helps no one. We should instead funnel emergency cash grants to poorer citizens raised by retailers, voluntary organizations, and perhaps state and local government.

This would allow everyone to buy what they need while higher prices worked to both conserve and rapidly increase the supplies available.

Christopher S. Martin, Ph.D.

Charles N. Steele, Ph.D.

Gary L. Wolfram, Ph.D.

Ivan Pongracic Jr., Ph.D.

Michael J. Clark, Ph.D.

The authors are all professors of economics at Hillsdale College.