Economics in One Lesson

by Henry Hazlitt

The Lesson Applied

“Stabilizing” Commodities


Attempts to lift the prices of particular commodities permanently above their natural market levels have failed so often, so disastrously and so notoriously that sophisticated pressure groups, and the bureaucrats upon whom they apply the pressure, seldom openly avow that aim. Their stated aims, particularly when they are first proposing that the government intervene, are usually more modest, and more plausible.

They have no wish, they declare, to raise the price of commodity X permanently above its natural level. That, they concede, would be unfair to consumers. But it is now obviously selling far below its natural level. The producers cannot make a living. Unless we act promptly, they will be thrown out of business. Then there will be a real scarcity, and consumers will have to pay exorbitant prices for the commodity. The apparent bargains that the consumers are now getting will cost them dear in the end. For the present “temporary” low price cannot last. But we cannot afford to wait for so-called natural market forces, or for the “blind” law of supply and demand, to correct the situation. For by that time the producers will be ruined and a great scarcity will be upon us. The government must act. All that we really want to do is to correct these violent, senseless fluctuations in price. We are not trying to boost the price; we are only trying to stabilize it.

There are several methods by which it is commonly proposed to do this. One of the most frequent is government loans to farmers to enable them to hold their crops off the market.

Such loans are urged in Congress for reasons that seem very plausible to most listeners. They are told that the farmers’ crops are all dumped on the market at once, at harvest time; that this is precisely the time when prices are lowest, and that speculators take advantage of this to buy the crops themselves and hold them for higher prices when food gets scarcer again. Thus it is urged that the farmers suffer, and that they, rather than the speculators, should get the advantage of the higher average price.

This argument is not supported by either theory or experience. The much-reviled speculators are not the enemy of the farmer; they are essential to his best welfare. The risks of fluctuating farm prices must be borne by somebody; they have in fact been borne in modern times chiefly by the professional speculators. In general, the more competently the latter act in their own interest as speculators, the more they help the farmer. For speculators serve their own interest precisely in proportion to their ability to foresee future prices. But the more accurately they foresee future prices the less violent or extreme are the fluctuations in prices.

Even if farmers had to dump their whole crop of wheat on the market in a single month of the year, therefore, the price in that month would not necessarily be below the price at any other month (apart from an allowance for the costs of storage). For speculators, in the hope of making a profit, would do most of their buying at that time. They would keep on buying until the price rose to a point where they saw no further opportunity of future profit. They would sell whenever they thought there was a prospect of future loss. The result would be to stabilize the price of farm commodities the year round.

It is precisely because a professional class of speculators exists to take these risks that farmers and millers do not need to take them. The latter can protect themselves through the markets. Under normal conditions, therefore, when speculators are doing their job well, the profits of farmers and millers will depend chiefly on their skill and industry in farming or milling, and not on market fluctuations.

Actual experience shows that on the average the price of wheat and other nonperishable crops remains the same all year round except for an allowance for storage, interest and insurance charges. In fact, some careful investigations have shown that the average monthly rise after harvest time has not been quite sufficient to pay such storage charges, so that the speculators have actually subsidized the farmers. This, of course, was not their intention: it has simply been the result of a persistent tendency to overoptimism on the part of speculators. (This tendency seems to affect entrepreneurs in most competitive pursuits: as a class they are constantly, contrary to intention, subsidizing consumers. This is particularly true wherever the prospects of big speculative gains exist. Just as the subscribers to a lottery, considered as a unit, lose money because each is unjustifiably hopeful of drawing one of the few spectacular prizes, so it has been calculated that the total value of the labor and capital dumped into prospecting for gold or oil has exceeded the total value of the gold or oil extracted.)

The case is different, however, when the State steps in and either buys the farmers’ crops itself or lends them the money to hold the crops off the market. This is sometimes done in the name of maintaining what is plausibly called an “ever-normal granary. But the history of prices and annual carryovers of crops shows that this function, as we have seen, is already being well performed by the privately organized free markets. When the government steps in, the ever-normal granary becomes in fact an ever-political granary. The farmer is encouraged, with the taxpayers’ money, to withhold his crops excessively. Because they wish to make sure of retaining the farmer’s vote, the politicians who initiate the policy, or the bureaucrats who carry it out, always place the so-called fair price for the farmer’s product above the price that supply and demand conditions at the time justify. This leads to a falling off in buyers. The ever-normal granary therefore tends to become an ever-abnormal granary. Excessive stocks are held off the market. The effect of this is to secure a higher price temporarily than would otherwise exist, but to do so only by bringing about later on a much lower price than would otherwise have existed. For the artificial shortage built up this year by withholding part of a crop from the market means an artificial surplus the next year.

It would carry us too far afield to describe in detail what actually happened* when this program was applied, for example, to Amencan cotton. We piled up an entire year’s crop in storage. We destroyed the foreign market for our cotton. We stimulated enormously the growth of cotton in other countries. Though these results had been predicted by opponents of the restriction and loan policy, when they actually happened the bureaucrats responsible for the result merely replied that they would have happened anyway.

For the loan policy is usually accompanied by, or inevitably leads to, a policy of restricting production — i.e., a policy of scarcity. In nearly every effort to “stabilize” the price of a commodity, the interests of the producers have been put first. The real object is an immediate boost of prices. To make this possible, a proportional restriction of output is usually placed on each producer subject to the control. This has several immediately bad effects. Assuming that the control can be imposed on an international scale, it means that total world production is cut. The world’s consumers are able to enjoy less of that product than they would have enjoyed without restriction. The world is just that much poorer. Because consumers are forced to pay higher prices than otherwise for that product, they have just that much less to spend on other products.

* The cotton program has been, however, an especially instructive one. As of August 1, 1956, the cotton carryover amounted to the record figure of 14,529,000 bales, more than a full year’s normal production or consumption. To cope with this, the government changed its program. It decided to buy most of the crop from the growers and immediately offer it for resale at a discount. In order to sell American cotton again in the world market, it made a subsidy payment on cotton exports first of 6 cents a pound and, in 1961, of 8.5 cents a pound. This policy did succeed in reducing the raw-cotton carryover. But in addition to the losses it imposed on the taxpayers, it put American textiles at a serious competitive disadvantage with foreign textiles in both the domestic and foreign markets. The American government was subsidizing the foreign industry at the expense of the American industry. It is typical of government price-fixing schemes that they escape one undesired consequence only by plunging into another and usually worse one.[4]