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Whenever there is a disaster, there are complaints of price gouging — that is, of people selling critical goods at grossly inflated prices. Over the last half-century, states and territories have increasingly responded by adopting anti-gouging laws that limit how much sellers can increase prices on at least some goods and services during an emergency. An overwhelming majority of jurisdictions now have such laws, and all share a few common characteristics. The laws vary considerably between jurisdictions, however, including on what products, services, and sellers they cover, how long they last, and how strictly they limit price increases. This Article assesses how the states changed their laws during, and in response to, the unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. It surveys 56 state and territorial jurisdictions and finds that more than one-third made changes to their anti-gouging laws between 2020 and 2022, mostly to adopt new laws or strengthen existing regimes. Although the state laws faced the same challenges in responding to the unique circumstances of COVID-19, there was no marked trend toward convergence on a single best approach to regulating price gouging. Instead, the laws are increasingly diverse, which provides both opportunities for policy learning and more pressure for a uniform standard. While the states and territories overwhelmingly favor anti-gouging regulation, economists oppose them nearly as consistently. Critics blast the laws as at best unnecessary (because many businesses voluntarily freeze prices) and at worst as triggering and worsening consumer shortages and derailing important market forces that can speed up disaster recovery. This Article explores both the criticism and support of anti-gouging regulation from both the economic and moral perspectives. It concludes that critics and supporters alike have overlooked a potentially important impact of anti-gouging regulation: the possibility that such rules can help equalize the risk that people will face unjustified price hikes in the event of an emergency between wealthier and poorer communities.

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Boston College Law Review





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