Did Price-Gouging Laws Increase Covid Deaths?

An interesting working paper was published this month by economists Rik Chakraborti (Christopher Newport University) and Gavin Roberts (Weber State University), “How Price-Gouging Regulation Undermined COVID-19 Mitigation: Evidence of Unintended Consequences.”

These price controls created shortages, which, according to economic theory, would have been more severe in the 42 states that already had price-gouging laws on the books or (inexplicably for an economist) rushed to legislate them after Covid hit. The federal Defense Production Act, invoked by Donald Trump, added more biting price controls on pandemic-related supplies (such as personal protection equipment) but is not considered in the Chakraborti-Roberts paper.

The authors used a database of cellphone-tracked mobility to calculate “average exposure of smartphones to each other within commercial venues.” Comparing states with and without price-gouging laws between January 22 and May 3, 2020, the econometric study confirmed that these laws were associated with more physical visits to commercial venues (especially from individuals in the lowest income quartile), as people were frantically looking for sanitizer and other goods in shortage. This increased shopping is likely to have increased contacts and infections. After controlling for state population density (which can have a compounding effect on infection), lockdown orders, and other factors, the econometric estimates suggest that price-gouging laws explain at least 25% of the early-April, first-wave Covid deaths in states with such laws.

We’ll have to see if these results are confirmed by other studies but they make economic sense. The regulatory welfare state may not be as nice as we thought, at least in its consequences. As for intentions, an old saying in many languages suggests that the road to hell is paved with them.

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