In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the New York Posts reports that New York attorney general is going after Craigslist listings for "price gougers" who are offering, e.g. $20/gallon gasoline.
Robert Nozick once said that "the socialist society would have to prevent capitalist acts between consenting adults." Well, here you go. I'm trying to understand the A.G.'s theory here: if someone needs, say, 5 gallons of gasoline, they usually have a range of quick, relatively equally-priced options, i.e. gas stations. It only takes a few minutes, and the range of prices for the equivalent grade of gas is only a few percent.
During the shortage conditions that obtains following Sandy, those options were curtailed. You could go to a gas station, but would wait in line for hours to buy gas at the normal, low price. Or you could go to a "price gouger", offering to sell you gas with no wait at a considerable mark-up. This gives the consumer a choice.
If the "gouger" did not exist, only the first option would be available. Of course, the approximate equivalent could be accomplished: the person who needed gas but didn't want to wait in line could hire someone to wait in the gas line. That, presumably, would not be gouging. But waiting in line and then trying to sell the product is. The "gouger", we see, is really a small-time entrepreneur.
There are many economic stories in which there are two sides, and one could easily understand the opposite position. (For example, economic nationalists who want certain barriers to trade may be willing to accept the costs of those barriers - higher prices, lower productivity - in exchange for protecting domestic jobs. One may see that there is a tradeoff, even if one has strong opinions about which side of the trade is the more desirable.) But this is a case in which the existence of the "gouger" is a pure good.