BY HENRY HAZLIT
Economics In One Lesson, Chapter 17, Government Price Fixing
We have seen what some of the effects are of governmental efforts to fix the prices of commodities above the levels to which free markets would otherwise have carried them. Let us now look at some of the results of government attempts to hold the prices of commodities below their natural market levels.
The latter attempt is made in our day by nearly all governments in wartime. We shall not examine here the wisdom of wartime price-fixing. The whole economy, in total war, is necessarily dominated by the State, and the complications that would have to be considered would carry us too far beyond the main question with which this book is concerned. But wartime price-fixing, wise or not, is in almost all countries continued for at least long periods after the war is over, when the original excuse for starting it has disappeared.
Let us first see what happens when the government tries to keep the price of a single commodity, or a small group of commodities, below the price that would be set in a free competitive market.
When the government tries to fix maximum prices for only a few items, it usually chooses certain basic necessities, on the ground that it is most essential that the poor be able to obtain these at a “reasonable” cost. Let us say that the items chosen for this purpose are bread, milk and meat.
The argument for holding down the price of these goods will run something like this. If we leave beef (let us say) to the mercies of the free market, the price will be pushed up by competitive bidding so that only the rich will get it. People will get beef not in proportion to their need, but only in proportion to their purchasing power. If we keep the price down, everyone will get his fair share.
The first thing to be noticed about this argument is that if it is valid the policy adopted is inconsistent and timorous. For if purchasing power rather than need determines the distribution of beef at a market price of 65 cents a pound, it would also determine it, though perhaps to a slightly smaller degree, at, say, a legal “ceiling” price of 50 cents a pound. The purchasing-power-rather-than-need argument, in fact, holds as long as we charge anything for beef whatever. It would cease to apply only if beef were given away.
But schemes for maximum price-fixing usually begin as efforts to “keep the cost of living from rising.” And so their sponsors unconsciously assume that there is something peculiarly “normal” or sacrosanct about the market price at the moment from which their control starts. That starting price is regarded as “reasonable,” and any price above that as “unreasonable,” regardless of changes in the conditions of production or demand since that starting price was first established.
In discussing this subject, there is no point in assuming a price control that would fix prices exactly where a free market would place them in any case. That would be the same as having no price control at all. We must assume that the purchasing power in the hands of the public is greater than the supply of goods available, and that prices are being held down by the government below the levels to which a free market would put them.
Now we cannot hold the price of any commodity below its market level without in time bringing about two consequences. The first is to increase the demand for that commodity. Because the commodity is cheaper, people are both tempted to buy, and can afford to buy, more of it. The second consequence is to reduce the supply of that commodity. Because people buy more, the accumulated supply is more quickly taken from the shelves of merchants. But in addition to this, production of that commodity is discouraged. Profit margins are reduced or wiped out. The marginal producers are driven out of business. Even the most efficient producers may be called upon to turn out their product at a loss. This happened in the war when slaughter houses were required by the Office of Price Administration to slaughter and process meat for less than the cost to them of cattle on the hoof and the labor of slaughter and processing.
If we did nothing else, therefore, the consequence of fixing a maximum price for a particular commodity would be to bring about a shortage of that commodity. But this is precisely the opposite of what the government regulators originally wanted to do. For it is the very commodities selected for maximum price-fixing that the regulators most want to keep in abundant supply. But when they limit the wages and the profits of those who make these commodities, without also limiting the wages and profits of those who make luxuries or semi-luxuries, they discourage the production of the price-controlled necessities while they relatively stimulate the production of less essential goods.
Some of these consequences in time become apparent to the regulators, who then adopt various other devices and controls in an attempt to avert them. Among these devices are rationing, cost-control, subsidies, and universal price-fixing. Let us look at each of these in turn.
When it becomes obvious that a shortage of some commodity is developing as a result of a price fixed below the market, rich consumers are accused of taking “more than their fair share”; or, if it is a raw material that enters into manufacture, individual firms are accused of “hoarding” it. The government then adopts a set of rules concerning who shall have priority in buying that commodity, or to whom and in what quantities it shall be allocated, or how it shall be rationed. If a rationing system is adopted, it means that each consumer can have only a certain maximum supply, no matter how much he is willing to pay for more.
If a rationing system is adopted, in brief, it means that the government adopts a double price system, or a dual currency system, in which each consumer must have a certain number of coupons or “points” in addition to a given amount of ordinary money. In other words, the government tries to do through rationing part of the job that a free market would have done through prices. I say only part of the job, because rationing merely limits the demand without also stimulating the supply, as a higher price would have done.
The government may try to assure supply through extending its control over the costs of production of a commodity. To hold down the retail price of beef, for example, it may fix the wholesale price of beef, the slaughter-house price of beef, the price of live cattle, the price of feed, the wages of farmhands. To hold down the delivered price of milk, it may try to fix the wages of milk-wagon drivers, the price of containers, the farm price of milk, the price of feedstuffs. To fix the price of bread, it may fix the wages in bakeries, the price of flour, the profits of millers, the price of wheat, and so on.
But as the government extends this price-fixing backwards, it extends at the same time the consequences that originally drove it to this course. Assuming that it has the courage to fix these costs, and is able to enforce its decisions, then it merely, in turn, creates shortages of the various factors—labor, feedstuffs, wheat, or whatever—that enter into the production of the final commodities. Thus the government is driven to controls in ever-widening circles, and the final consequence will be the same as that of universal price-fixing.
The government may try to meet this difficulty through subsidies. It recognizes, for example, that when it keeps the price of milk or butter below the level of the market, or below the relative level at which it fixes other prices, a shortage may result because of lower wages or profit margins for the production of milk or butter as compared with other commodities. Therefore the government attempts to compensate for this by paying a subsidy to the milk and butter producers. Passing over the administrative difficulties involved in this, and assuming that the subsidy is just enough to assure the desired relative production of milk and butter, it is clear that, though the subsidy is paid to producers, those who are really being subsidized are the consumers. For the producers are on net balance getting no more for their milk and butter than if they had been allowed to charge the free market price in the first place; but the consumers are getting their milk and butter at a great deal below the free market price. They are being subsidized to the extent of the difference—that is, by the amount of subsidy paid ostensibly to the producers.
Now unless the subsidized commodity is also rationed, it is those with the most purchasing power that can buy most of it. This means that they are being subsidized more than those with less purchasing power. Who subsidizes the consumers will depend upon the incidence of taxation. But men in their role of taxpayers will be subsidizing themselves in their role of consumers. It becomes a little difficult to trace in this maze precisely who is subsidizing whom. What is forgotten is that subsidies are paid for by someone, and that no method has been discovered by which the community gets something for nothing.
Price-fixing may often appear for a short period to be successful. It can seem to work well for a while, particularly in wartime, when it is supported by patriotism and a sense of crisis. But the longer it is in effect the more its difficulties increase. When prices are arbitrarily held down by government compulsion, demand is chronically in excess of supply. We have seen that if the government attempts to prevent a shortage of a commodity by reducing also the prices of the labor, raw materials and other factors that go into its cost of production, it creates a shortage of these in turn. But not only will the government, if it pursues this course, find it necessary to extend price control more and more downwards, or “vertically”; it will find it no less necessary to extend price control “horizontally.” If we ration one commodity, and the public cannot get enough of it, though it still has excess purchasing power, it will turn to some substitute. The rationing of each commodity as it grows scarce, in other words, must put more and more pressure on the unrationed commodities that remain. If we assume that the government is successful in its efforts to prevent black markets (or at least prevents them from developing on a sufficient scale to nullify its legal prices), continued price control must drive it to the rationing of more and more commodities. This rationing cannot stop with consumers. In war it did not stop with consumers. It was applied first of all, in fact, in the allocation of raw materials to producers.
The natural consequence of a thoroughgoing over-all price control which seeks to perpetuate a given historic price level, in brief, must ultimately be a completely regimented economy. Wages would have to be held down as rigidly as prices. Labor would have to be rationed as ruthlessly as raw materials. The end result would be that the government would not only tell each consumer precisely how much of each commodity he could have; it would tell each manufacturer precisely what quantity of each raw material he could have and what quantity of labor. Competitive bidding for workers could no more be tolerated than competitive bidding for materials. The result would be a petrified totalitarian economy, with every business firm and every worker at the mercy of the government, and with a final abandonment of all the traditional liberties we have known. For as Alexander Hamilton pointed out in the Federalist papers a century and a half ago, “A power over a man’s subsistence amounts to a power over his will.”
These are the consequences of what might be described as “perfect,” long-continued, and “non-political” price control. As was so amply demonstrated in one country after another, particularly in Europe during and after World War II, some of the more fantastic errors of the bureaucrats were mitigated by the black market. It was a common story from many European countries that people were able to get enough to stay alive only by patronizing the black market. In some countries the black market kept growing at the expense of the legally recognized fixed-price market until the former became, in effect, the market. By nominally keeping the price ceilings, however, the politicians in power tried to show that their hearts, if not their enforcement squads, were in the right place.
Because the black market, however, finally supplanted the legal price-ceiling market, it must not be supposed that no harm was done. The harm was both economic and moral. During the transition period the large, long-established firms, with a heavy capital investment and a great dependence upon the retention of public good-will, are forced to restrict or discontinue production. Their place is taken by fly-by-night concerns with little capital and little accumulated experience in production. These new firms are inefficient compared with those they displace; they turn out inferior and dishonest goods at much higher production costs than the older concerns would have required for continuing to turn out their former goods. A premium is put on dishonesty. The new firms owe their very existence or growth to the fact that they are willing to violate the law; their customers conspire with them; and as a natural consequence demoralization spreads into all business practices.
It is seldom, moreover, that any honest effort is made by the price-fixing authorities merely to preserve the level of prices existing when their efforts began. They declare that their intention is to “hold the line.” Soon, however, under the guise of “correcting inequities” or “social injustices,” they begin a discriminatory price-fixing which gives most to those groups that are politically powerful and least to other groups.
As political power today is most commonly measured by votes, the groups that the authorities most often attempt to favor are workers and farmers. At first it is contended that wages and living costs are not connected; that wages can easily be lifted without lifting prices. When it becomes obvious that wages can be raised only at the expense of profits, the bureaucrats begin to argue that profits were already too high anyway, and that lifting wages and holding prices will still permit “a fair profit.” As there is no such thing as a uniform rate of profit, as profits differ with each concern, the result of this policy is to drive the least profitable concerns out of business altogether, and to discourage or stop the production of certain items. This means unemployment, a shrinkage in production and a decline in living standards.
What lies at the base of the whole effort to fix maximum prices? There is first of all a misunderstanding of what it is that has been causing prices to rise. The real cause is either a scarcity of goods or a surplus of money. Legal price ceilings cannot cure either. In fact, as we have just seen, they merely intensify the shortage of goods. What to do about the surplus of money will be discussed in a later chapter. But one of the errors that lie behind the drive for price-fixing is the chief subject of this book. Just as the endless plans for raising prices of favored commodities are the result of thinking of the interests only of the producers immediately concerned, and forgetting the interests of consumers, so the plans for holding down prices by legal edict are the result of thinking of the interests of people only as consumers and forgetting their interests as producers. And the political support for such policies springs from a similar confusion in the public mind. People do not want to pay more for milk, butter, shoes, furniture, rent, theater tickets or diamonds. Whenever any of these items rises above its previous level the consumer becomes indignant, and feels that he is being rooked.
The only exception is the item he makes himself: here he understands and appreciates the reason for the rise. But he is always likely to regard his own business as in some way an exception. “Now my own business,” he will say, “is peculiar, and the public does not understand it. Labor costs have gone up; raw material prices have gone up; this or that raw material is no longer being imported, and must be made at a higher cost at home. Moreover, the demand for the product has increased, and the business should be allowed to charge the prices necessary to encourage its expansion to supply this demand.” And so on. Everyone as consumer buys a hundred different products; as producer he makes, usually, only one. He can see the inequity in holding down the price of that. And just as each manufacturer wants a higher price for his particular product, so each worker wants a higher wage or salary. Each can see as producer that price control is restricting production in his line. But nearly everyone refuses to generalize this observation, for it means that he will have to pay more for the products of others.
Each one of us, in brief, has a multiple economic personality. Each one of us is producer, taxpayer, consumer. The policies he advocates depend upon the particular aspect under which he thinks of himself at the moment. For he is sometimes Dr. Jekyll and sometimes Mr. Hyde. As a producer he wants inflation (thinking chiefly of his own services or product); as a consumer he wants price ceilings (thinking chiefly of what he has to pay for the products of others). As a consumer he may advocate or acquiesce in subsidies; as a taxpayer he will resent paying them. Each person is likely to think that he can so manage the political forces that he can benefit from the subsidy more than he loses from the tax, or benefit from a rise for his own product (while his raw material costs are legally held down) and at the same time benefit as a consumer from price control. But the overwhelming majority will be deceiving themselves. For not only must there be at least as much loss as gain from this political manipulation of prices; there must be a great deal more loss than gain, because price-fixing discourages and disrupts employment and production.
Henry Hazlitt (1894-1993) was the great economic journalist of the 20th century. He is the author of Economics in One Lesson among 20 other books. He was chief editorial writer for the New York Times, and wrote weekly for Newsweek. He served in an editorial capacity at The Freeman and was a board member of the Foundation for Economic Education.
Used with the permission of the Foundation for Economic Education.