Empty shelves are a sign the market is dysfunctional and the government hasn’t got a grip.

Empty shelves in the supermarket are a sign of the breakdown of social trust.

This morning I was looking for an obscure item of shopping; and the supermarket worker who was showing me where it was – and who hitherto hadn’t strayed far from her station at the Deli counter- expressed shock at how many of the shelves had been cleared by panic buying – mostly toilet rolls, soap, staple carbs like pasta and rice. “I’ve never seen it like this” she said. Then paused. “I will be doing my panic buying tomorrow. We have 15% discount.”

When I suggested that essentials should be rationed, she said that at the moment there is no company policy on restricting sales – why would there be if the point of an enterprise is to sell as much as possible as fast as possible? Some public spirited managers were trying to put restrictions on, but this seemed to be in response to particularly over the top purchasing and not especially strong- like the woman who was trying to buy three boxes full of tinned soup. They restricted her to two.

Shop workers themselves – in the absence of a policy – are unable to challenge even the most gratuitous purchases because this is seen as “bad customer relations.” The consumer is king, even at their most anti-social.

Panic buying happens when people are nervous that they will not have access to things they consider essential – because no one is regulating the supply. The result is shortages for those least able to shop on a big scale. Government regulation limiting purchase of essential items should have been put in place pre-emptively. Leaving a situation like this to “the market” to sort out leaves the most vulnerable at the mercy of the hidden hand.

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