Inflation and Price Control
1. The Futility of Price Control
Under socialism production is entirely directed by the orders of the central board of production management. The whole nation is an “industrial army” (a term used by Karl Marx in the Communist Manifesto) and each citizen is bound to obey his superior’s orders. Everybody has to contribute his share to the execution of the overall plan adopted by the Government.
In the free economy no production czar tells a man what he should do. Everybody plans and acts for himself. The coordination of the various individuals’ activities, and their integration into a harmonious system for supplying the consumers with the goods and services they demand, is brought about by the market process and the price structure it generates.
The market steers the capitalistic economy. It directs each individual’s activities into those channels in which he best serves the wants of his fellow-men. The market alone puts the whole social system of private ownership of the means of production and free enterprise in order and provides it with sense and meaning.
There is nothing automatic or mysterious in the operation of the market. The only forces determining the continually fluctuating state of the market are the value judgments of the various individuals and their actions as directed by these value judgments. The ultimate factor in the market is the striving of each man to satisfy his needs and wants in the best possible way. Supremacy of the market is tantamount to the supremacy of the consumers. By their buying, and by their abstention from buying, the consumers determine not only the price structure, but no less what should be produced and in what quantity and quality and by whom. They determine each entrepreneur’s profit or loss, and thereby who should own the capital and run the plants. They make poor men rich and rich men poor. The profit system is essentially production for use, as profits can be earned only by success in supplying consumers in the best and cheapest way with the commodities they want to use.
From this it becomes clear what government tampering with the price structure of the market means. It diverts production from those channels into which the consumers want to direct it into other lines. Under a market not manipulated by government interference there prevails a tendency to expand the production of each article to the point at which a further expansion would not pay because the price realized would not exceed costs. If the government fixes a maximum price for certain commodities below the level which the unhampered market would have determined for them and makes it illegal to sell at the potential market price, production involves a loss for the marginal producers. Those producing with the highest costs go out of the business and employ their production facilities for the production of other commodities, not affected by price ceilings. The government’s interference with the price of a commodity restricts the supply available for consumption. This outcome is contrary to the intentions which motivated the price ceiling. The government wanted to make it easier for people to obtain the article concerned. But its intervention results in shrinking of the supply produced and offered for sale.
If this unpleasant experience does not teach the authorities that price control is futile and that the best policy would be to refrain from any endeavors to control prices, it becomes necessary to add to the first measure, restricting merely the price of one or of several consumers’ goods, further measures. It becomes necessary to fix the prices of the factors of production required for the production of the consumers’ goods concerned. Then the same story repeats itself on a remoter plane. The supply of those factors of production whose prices have been limited shrinks. Then again the government must expand the sphere of its price ceilings. It must fix the prices of the secondary factors of production required for the production of those primary factors. Thus the government must go farther and farther. It must fix the prices of all consumers’ goods and of all factors of production, both material factors and labor, and it must force every entrepreneur and every worker to continue production at these prices and wage rates. No branch of production must be omitted from this all-around fixing of prices and wages and this general order to continue production. If some branches were to be left free, the result would be a shifting of capital and labor to them and a corresponding fall in the
Article from Mises Wire