News & Politics

Libertarian Pundit John Stossel Defends Price Gouging Victims of Hurricane Florence Tragedy — Here's Why He's Wrong

The question is: what are they gouging, and when and where?

Photo Credit: Photo By: Spc. Anthony Martinez

Libertarians can be great at calling out overreach from Republicans and the Christian Right, often stressing that they consider themselves to be “social liberals” who are “fiscal conservatives.” The late Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, who had nothing good to say about the Christian Right and was a blistering critic of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, Sr., has often been quoted by members of the Libertarian Party. But libertarians can also be apologists for the worst aspects of predatory “free enterprise,” and a perfect example is John Stossel’s recent defense of price gouging during Hurricane Florence.

On September 19—when floodwaters were rising in North Carolina and the death toll from Hurricane Florence was increasing—Reason.com published a Stossel commentary with the headline “Three Cheers for Price Gouging During Hurricane Florence.” As Stossel sees it, price gouging during hurricanes and other disasters isn’t a form of predatory abuse, but rather, an indication of how well free enterprise works.

In the article, Stossel was critical of those who favor laws against predatory price gouging during storms—including North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi (a right-wing Republican). Nor is Stossel fond of a law in heavily Republican South Carolina that imposes a $1000 fine on price gouging during emergencies.

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No one will mistake Bondi for a Bernie Sanders supporter anytime soon, but she is correct in saying that price gougers during tragedies are “bad people.” Stossel, in response to Bondi, commented, “I thought Republicans were the party that believed the market determines prices.”

Stossel, however, praised John Shepperson, the Kentucky resident who, during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, was arrested in Mississippi after trying to sell 19 generators for twice what he paid for them. Although Shepperson was denounced as a parasite who set out to profit from the horror and misery of Hurricane Katrina, Stossel considers him a hero who was only trying to help those in need.

Stossel’s defense of price-gouging during Hurricane Florence and Hurricane Katrina is as ridiculous as his assertion that fire departments should be privatized, not operated as government services. But while free-market capitalism has its place, so does a certain amount of socialism—such as fire departments being funded through tax dollars. And when a neighbor’s house is on fire and taxpayer-funded firefighters show up with their hoses and put the raging inferno out, socialism works splendidly.

In his Reason.com article, Stossel quotes right-wing economist Milton Friedman as saying that “gougers deserve a medal” because they show what products people want the most. But the question is: what are they gouging, and when and where? If Apple users prefer to spend extra for a desktop, laptop or smartphone because they especially like Apple products and prefer them to competing brands, that’s one thing. But selling bottles of water for $15 or $20 during a severe hurricane isn’t “free enterprise”—it’s vile behavior that preys on desperation and human suffering.

And for those who do engage in such behavior, heavy fines are highly appropriate.

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Alex Henderson is a news writer at AlterNet and veteran political journalist. His work has also appeared in Salon, Raw Story, Truthdig, National Memo, Philadelphia Weekly, Democratic Underground, L.A. Weekly, MintPress News and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @alexvhenderson.