Bush: Zero Tolerance for Looters

President Bush today declared that there should be “zero tolerance” for looters and price gougers.

Bush warns against price gouging on gasoline prices (Reuters) (see CNN version here)

President Bush warned against price-gouging of gasoline on Thursday in reaction to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and said looters should be treated with zero tolerance. “I think there ought to be zero tolerance of people breaking the law during an emergency such as this, whether it be looting, or price-gouging at the gasoline pump or taking advantage or charitable giving, or insurance fraud,” Bush said in an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

What does that mean, exactly?

Obviously, people who break the law should be punished. That’s true even when there’s not a hurricane. I even agree that a natural disaster is no excuse for stealing from one’s neighbors.

Presumably, though, the president means something more than that. Is he saying that looters and price gougers and the like should be shot on sight? Or merely that the flooding constitutes aggravating circumstances that would add to the penalties imposed after due process of law?

Update: While most of us are focusing on the looters, others are more concerned about the villification of price gougers.

Mark Kleiman notes that “price gouging” may be precisely what’s needed right now:

So there’s going to be less gasoline in the southeast and midwest than people were planning to buy at last week’s (already very high) prices.

The natural result of that situation is that the price of gasoline goes up. In the short run, that doesn’t result in any additional supply, but it does reduce the quantity demanded, allowing the market to clear. Unfortunately, the short-run price-elasticity of demand for gasoline is low, so even a modest-sized supply crunch will naturally cause big price increases.

In economics, this is called “market clearing.” In politics, it’s called “price gouging.”

True. Of course, the same is true for other commodities. It’s expensive to send surge capacities of, say, lumber to an area hit by a natural disaster. So, if the margins are low, there’s no incentive–indeed, it may actually cost more than the break even point–to meet the demand surge in the short run.

Tyler Cowen adds, “When such a disaster comes, should we waive price gouging laws, and temporarily repeal liability for those helping strangers?”

Bryan Caplan sums it up nicely: “Note to politicians of the world: For the last time, if you want supplies to flow to disaster areas, let prices rise !”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Millions says:

    What does that mean, exactly?

    James, I think you’re being putting too much stock in Bush’s words. This is a typical “My Pet Goat” moment for him. He has shown in the past that he isn’t very good at being composed in the midst of a crisis. He regurgitates platitudes and soundbites hoping to show “strength,” but his failure on numerous fronts to deal with pressing domestic policy issues is so endemic that it is impossible to take the man seriously.

  2. Mike Roach says:

    Perhaps he said what he meant. I think that before this plays out, you will realize that martial law is the prescribed cure. Crowd control will have to pre-empt the normal operations of law. You must regain control through the threat of immediate punishment. Arrest would put violators in a better position than law abiding citizens awaiting help in a orderly manner. You will create a situation whereby if one wants to be rescued, just steal something. Order must be preserved at ALL cost. We as a group are herd animals. It will not take much force to restore order. As to price gouging. Seize all assets and imprison. Not really a problem that cant be dealt with. Gouging is a crime against the people. It is always intentional. What would the argument be otherwise, could it be “I didnt know that doubling the price was bad???

  3. Harriett Lindsey says:

    It is interesting that Bush is more interested in looters as opposed to saving the lives of people who are poor and primarily black. Let them steal food if it means that they can survive.

  4. Hope says:

    Those people need help! I can care less about them taking whatever they can find to help them make it from one day to the next until help arrives.

    And speaking of help, Why is it taking so very long? We can move help to other nations quicker it seems than for our own people….Or perhaps we do not “see” them as people?

  5. Deb Ferrell-Lynn says:

    Hey! Harriett and Hope : Mark my words. We will see condemnation of the federal government when it is learned that massive amounts of fraud have taken place when federal aid is distributed. We have already learned of people defrauding FEMA (Florida hurricanes), and the Katrina disaster provides an even greater opportunity for thievary. Bush was right on target warning against the greed that we will see. He never said that taking food to survive is the same thing as stealing big screens and trash cans full of liquor. Could he have made a distinction? Sure, but cut the man some slack! People are acting like he’s the first and only government official to not express his position completely and thoroughly! Maybe people should be a little more upset with folks who are blunt and clear. I didn’t hear people freaking out when Clinton told an audience that the federal government know how to spend their tax dollars better than they do or when nutcases on the left accuse Republicans of wanting to kill old people. Sheeez! Bush is not a gifted speaker, but so what? You think being glib and articulate are the hallmarks of leadership? Let’s be a little more broad minded. Oh, and the little sound bite about Bush not caring about black people…tell that to his very diverse Cabinet and the black Americans in New Orleans who are openly hugging the President and asking him to sign their T-shirts. Or do great intellectuals like Kanye West, Sean Penn, and Rev. (!!!!) Sharpton control your brains? I do not agree with every position taken by the Bush Administration (like the massive amounts of federal aid that are now being offerred for basically political purposes, as in, satisfying the ignorant people who equate spending with good governance), but on this one, Bush is simply the target of the pathological Left.