Last week I shocked some Christian people when I advocated price gouging, which is merely a pejorative term for allowing the market to set prices not only in ordinary times when it is considered perfectly just, but also in times of shortage brought on by a crisis like a natural disaster. They thought I was bowing to wealth instead of to God, and serving mammon instead of serving God’s image-bearers.
A friend on the left accused me of treating the market as though it were God. But I no more view the market as God than, say, a pilot views gravity as God simply by respecting it as the way things work. Wealth creation and its just distribution by market economics are as much part of God’s created order as the principles of aerodynamics.
But gravity and market forces are different in that anyone is free not to follow the market, such as when you give a gift. So too, if gas retailers were free to sell their fuel for whatever price it would fetch after a hurricane shut down most of their competition, they would also be free to discount it for the needy, as they certainly would in a healthy Christian culture. Actually, people who purchased gas after Superstorm Sandy—at a great cost of time—shared freely with people whom they knew were in greater need than themselves.
So, in market exchange as well as acts of mercy, people are of paramount importance. Exchanging goods at a market-determined price respects the equality of dominion each party has over his property. And when need exceeds a person’s ability to pay, the godly merchant recognizes the equal humanity of the poor when he cuts them a separate deal.
Consider the alternative.
If the market did not set prices and if retailers or customers of means were not free to exercise their charity or decency in helping their neighbors, it would fall to the government to constrain choices and order what it considered a moral outcome. This is precisely where tender Christian hearts are tempted to go when they hear about “price gouging” in a crisis.
But if it were up to the government to judge at all times who should pay and receive what and in what quantities according to their need and merit, it would need to be virtually omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly just. Yes, the moral alternative to leaving people free to acquire, keep, and give is the direct rule of God. That desire for government to step in and play God, putting everything right, is what theologians call an “overrealized eschatology,” and it always leads to inhumanity and horror.
Of course, Christ makes all the difference. Liberty without Christ, or even a Christian cultural influence, descends into various forms of mutual devouring and self-destruction. Without Christ, the answer is not more government. That would be treating government as God. No, the answer is to be at least as zealous for Christ as we are for liberty.