Unedifying scenes from the Antipodes. The toilet paper crisis is now a global phenomenon, but Australia has seen some of the worst panic buying, including a “melee” in which a knife was reportedly pulled.
Empty shelves are bad enough, but what really riles people is when scarce goods are sold at a hefty mark-up. Even worse, is when it’s the mainstream retailers putting up the prices. Vultures!
We’ve already seen shortages and price surges for items like masks and hand sanitiser, but if everyday groceries go the same way, then public anger could boil over.
All this puts the defenders of capitalism in a tight spot. Charging as much as the market will bear is pretty much how the system works. As for accusations of ‘profiteering’ — well, people go into business to make a profit.
We’re not talking about some illegal practice here, like bribery or insider dealing, but markets doing what they ordinarily do — albeit in the extraordinary context of an extreme mismatch of supply and demand.
And it’s precisely because this is a feature and not a bug of capitalism that free marketeers feel they have to make excuses for what’s happening. If we don’t have surge pricing, they say, we’ll have surge buying instead — like in Australia.
The trouble is that rationing by price, which works well in normal circumstances, stops working when the common good is best served by an even distribution of scarce goods across the population — especially those required to fight the spread of disease.
Whether access is cornered by the rich, by panic buyers or by opportunistic touts, the result is the same — a dangerously uneven allocation of an essential resource.
Free marketeers need to know when to quit. There are circumstances where capitalism-as-usual just can’t do the job. In cases like this one, the answer is rationing — and if the retailers don’t want government wading-in to uncertain effect, then they must do the job themselves.