Hazlitt’s “Economics in One Lesson – Chapter Seventeen: Government Price-Fixing”
This Classic Work was written by Henry Hazlitt.
Continued from Chapter 16: Stabilizing Commodities
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.
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 World War II 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 semiluxuries, 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 truck 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. lt 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 World War II 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 nearly two centuries ago, “A power over a man’s subsistence amounts to a power over his will.”
* 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.
Continue to Chapter 18: What Rent Control Does