Economics in One Lesson

by Henry Hazlitt

The Lesson Applied

Government Price-Fixing

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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.

It is the wartime inflation that mainly causes the pressure for price-fixing. At the time of writing, when practically every country is inflating, though most of them are at peace, price controls are always hinted at, even when they are not imposed. Though they are always economically harmful, if not destructive, they have at least a political advantage from the standpoint of the officeholders.By implication they put the blame for higher prices on the greed and rapacity of businessmen, instead of on the inflationary monetary policies of the officeholders themselves.

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 $2.25 cents a pound, it would also determine it, though perhaps to a slightly smaller degree, at, say, a legal “ceiling” price of $1.50 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 or previous 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.

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* My own conclusion, however, is that, while some government priorities, allocations or rationing may be unavoidable, government price-fixing is likely to be especially harmful in total war. Whereas maximum price-fixing requires rationing to make it work, even temporarily, the converse is not true.