The Moral Order of Prices
When governments worldwide declared states of emergency due to the rapid spreading of the COVID-19 virus in early March 2020, face masks, hand sanitizers, and other personal protective equipment (PPE) suddenly disappeared from the market or were sold at exorbitant prices. According to one estimate, during April 2020, PPE prices increased on average by 1,000 percent in the US (Diaz, Sands, and Alesci 2020). Such price hikes were not only caused by the increasing cost of production and supply chain problems but also by the sellers' new ability to sell their existing supply for any price. One seller, who sold nearly 10,000 medical masks on Amazon, explained to the press: "Even at $125 a box, they were selling almost instantly. It was mind-blowing what you could charge." He estimated that he made almost $40,000 in profit (Nicas 2020). However, this type of seller behavior incited condemnation from consumer advocacy groups, public agencies, and regulators, calling it "price gouging" and "profiteering" off the backs of vulnerable consumers. For example, a spokesperson for a US national consumer advocacy group expressed, "It's wrong for companies to engage in price gouging at a time when people have enough to worry about. We believe they can stop it and protect consumers at such a vulnerable moment" (Emma Horst-Martz in Hetrick 2020).
This research project uses the debate over seller price gouging under emergencies to investigate how cultural norms configure markets. Given the greater frequency of natural catastrophes like hurricanes or floods in the context of global climate change, price gouging will likely become an increasingly contested issue in market economies everywhere. However, political scientists and sociologists have mostly ignored the questions about the ethical and regulatory control of market pricing decisions during emergencies. I am particularly interested in three interconnected research questions:
Why do consumers find some price increased morally indefensible? What moral frameworks and arguments do they use against price hikes during emergencies?
Why are there public institutions (laws and regulations) prohibiting price gouging? And what explains the national variations among these institutions?
Lastly, to what extent, if any, are the pricing decisions of sellers under emergencies informed by the moral denunciation (or the legal prohibition) of price gouging?
1. Why some price increases are condemned as "price gouging"?
In the first part of the research project, I analyze the moral meanings attributed to prices during emergencies through a quantitative and qualitative examination of the consumer complaints over price gouging received by the US state consumer authorities during the COVID-19 pandemic. The topics of moral economy and just price have been important to social scientists. Polanyi (1957) argued that perceptions of mutual obligation and reciprocity dominated market exchange under the Speenhamland poor relief system of 18th century England. Thompson (1971) showed that the existence of strong and popular beliefs about just grain prices motivated food riots during the same period. Scott (1977) demonstrated that the obligation of landlords to provide subsistence for their tenants was the main economic principle in peasant communities in Southeast Asia. However, in all these studies, such moral obligations are argued to have gradually disappeared against the advancement of the modern capitalist economy. Yet, the vocal moral denunciation of price gouging during the COVID-19 pandemic, even in the most advanced economies, suggests that some of the cultural norms and expectations that defined moral markets have survived the expansion of free-market capitalism.
2. Why are there regulations on "price gouging"?
The second part of this project examines why many societies have laws and regulations that prohibit price gouging. To answer this question, I utilize the cross-national variations within the existing systems of price gouging prohibitions. There are significant differences between regulatory and antitrust (competition) law prohibitions of price gouging. The EU Competition Laws and the national competition laws of the EU member states prohibit high pricing by monopolists or oligopolists (the so-called “excessive pricing” rule). These prohibitions are extended to price gouging during emergencies. For example, the British, Italian, Greek, and Romanian competition authorities launched investigations into companies producing or importing PPE (OECD 2020). Conversely, US antitrust laws do not prohibit price increases by monopolist; instead, most US states have price gouging laws, executive orders, or ordinances that are activated by the declaration of a state of emergency. These regulations either prohibit a certain percentage of price increase beyond pre-emergency prices, or more ambiguously, the "unconscionable" increases in prices during emergencies. By looking at the differences between the regulatory and competition law prohibitions of price gouging, in the books or in practice, we can examine the social and political factors that shape the prohibition of price gouging in different societies.
3. How does the condemnation (or prohibition) of "price gouging" affect markets?
Lastly, most of the discussion over the moral and legal permissibility of price gouging is based on assumptions over the motivations and behaviors of sellers during an emergency. However, we know very little about the pricing decisions and motivations of sellers during an emergency, and whether these decisions are influenced by the moral norms over price gouging. Thus, in the last part of this project, I investigate how sellers make pricing decisions during emergencies, what moral or economic considerations affect these decisions, and what moral frameworks the sellers use to defend their pricing decisions. Following Quinn (2008), I mainly rely on news reports and interviews to analyze how moral frameworks shape and are shaped by markets.
Diaz, Daniella, Geneva Sands, and Cristina Alesci. 2020. “Protective Equipment Costs Increase Over 1,000% amid Competition and Surge in Demand,” April 17, 2020, sec. CNNPolitics. https://edition.cnn.com/2020/04/16/politics/ppe-price-costs-rising-economy-personal-protective-equipment/index.html.
Hetrick, Christian. 2020. “Coronavirus Has Consumers Making an ‘Extraordinary’ Number of Price Gouging Complaints.” April 29, 2020. https://www.inquirer.com/consumer/coronavirus-price-gouging-complaints-pa-nj-20200429.html.
Nicas, Jack. 2020. “He Has 17,700 Bottles of Hand Sanitizer and Nowhere to Sell Them.” The New York Times, March 14, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/14/technology/coronavirus-purell-wipes-amazon-sellers.html.
OECD. 2020. “Exploitative Pricing in the Time of COVID-19.” Tackling Coronovirus (COVID-19): Contributing to a Global Effort. https://www.oecd.org/competition/Exploitative-pricing-in-the-time-of-COVID-19.pdf.
Polanyi, Karl. 1957. The Great Transformation:(The Political and Economic Origin of Our Time). Beacon Press.
Quinn, Sarah. 2008. “The Transformation of Morals in Markets: Death, Benefits, and the Exchange of Life Insurance Policies.” American Journal of Sociology 114 (3): 738–80.
Scott, James C. 1977. The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. Vol. 315. Yale University Press.
Thompson, Edward P. 1971. “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century.” Past & Present, no. 50: 76–136.