Et Tu Miyares — Prosecuting “Price Gougers”?

West End Motors

by James A. Bacon

What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. I lambasted former Attorney General Mark Herring for touting his prosecution of gas station owners for “price gouging” — raising prices in the wake of the Colonial Pipeline shutdown. Now the AG’s office under Jason Miyares has issued a press release crowing about squeezing a $6,000 settlement out of Lovettsville-based Wheeler & Wheeler Inc. (West End Motors) for raising its prices during the state of emergency declared last May. It’s only fair that I give Miyares some  hell.

Between May 11 and May 14, the gas station charged an average price of $3.51 for regular unleaded, and more for other grades of gasoline — an increase of more than 20%. The increases were not attributable to additional costs incurred by the business, an AG investigation found.

“I am pleased that my office reached an agreement that will make restitution dollars available for affected consumers,” Miyares said in a press release.

The irony is that $3.51 today would be quite the bargain. As of March 15, the average price of regular in Virginia was running around $4.20.

I fully understand that the price of gasoline these days is a hot political issue, and I’m sympathetic to Governor Glenn Youngkin’s plan to use greater-than-anticipated gas tax revenues to give motorists a three-month tax holiday. That won’t solve the underlying supply-and-demand issues, but it will provide a small, temporary measure of relief.

I also understand that Miyares inherited the case from Herring, and I expect that prosecution is required by law — regardless of one’s feelings about its validity. But his office didn’t have to issue a press release, which just legitimizes the whole idea behind the prosecution of price gougers.

Look, when the Colonial Pipeline shut down, the big problem wasn’t price gouging. It was panicky motorists continually topping off their tanks, thus drawing down the limited supply of gasoline from other sources that remained on the market. Panic hoarding is just as socially and economically destabilizing as “price gouging.” Indeed, the only way to combat panic hoarding is for gasoline retailers to… raise the price of gasoline, thus increasing the cost to hoarders. One could argue that West End Motors and other gasoline retailers who were prosecuted for raising prices in the aftermath of the Colonial Pipeline shutdown were doing a good thing!

Virginia’s stupid law prohibits price gouging but not panic hoarding — presumably because it’s easier to prosecute a handful of gas station owners than it is to bring charges against hundreds of thousands of motorists. Miyares, an economic conservative who has an appreciation for the role of prices in free markets — surely understands this.

Here’s what I’d love to see Miyares say in the next price-gouging press release: “Hey, the law sucks.” (OK, he probably shouldn’t use the word “sucks.”)  An alternative: “I don’t make the laws. I’m elected to enforce laws whether I personally like them or not. But this law is counter-productive, and I will work with legislators to change it.”