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Can We All Just Agree That Price Controls Do Not Work?

Photo by: ellievanhoutte

Laying some groundwork for a future post, I wanted to have a quick discussion about a topic that amazes me as a complete disconnect between reality and policy.  Price controls have been suggested as solutions for everything from food shortages, to black markets during sieges; but they have an amazing history of achieving the exact opposite of their intent.  In a recent example, Hugo Chavez has attempted price controls in Venezuela, with disastrous results.[1] Before I start talking about some other policy issues, I want to make sure that we all agree that price controls simply do not work.

What are Price Controls?

Price controls are when some entity, typically a government, tries to externally set the price of something.  We most often see this in the form of price ceilings where the government tries to set the maximum price producers can charge for something.  One very common example of this is rent control.  The government doesn’t want property owners “gouging” their tenants, so they set a variety of rules on what the landlord can charge. As we will see, this never has the desired effect.

Keeping It Simple

What price controls advocates never seem to accept is that changing the price of something doesn’t affect the supply of that thing.  The government can say that all Ferraris only cost $50, but that doesn’t mean everyone can have a Ferrari.  In fact, Ferrari will immediately stop producing them.  The purpose of markets is to make sure that resources get to the people who want them the most.  Keeping prices low leads to overconsumption, inefficient allocation of resources, discrimination, and disincentive to increase supply.  Let’s look at some simple examples:

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  1. BBC News – Venezuelan Shoppers Face Food Shortages []