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How Should Prices Be Determined?

May 18, 2012

Tags Free MarketsPrices

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"How should prices be determined?" To this question we could make a short and simple answer: prices should be determined by the market.

The answer is correct enough, but some elaboration is necessary to answer the practical problem concerning the wisdom of government price control.

Let us begin on the elementary level and say that prices are determined by the supply and demand. If the relative demand for a product increases, consumers will be willing to pay more for it. Their competitive bids will both oblige them individually to pay more for it and enable producers to get more for it. This will raise the profit margins of the producers of that product. This, in turn, will tend to attract more firms into the manufacture of that product, and induce existing firms to invest more capital into making it. The increased production will tend to reduce the price of the product again, and to reduce the profit margin in making it. The increased investment in new manufacturing equipment may lower the cost of production. Or — particularly if we are concerned with some extractive industry such as petroleum, gold, silver, or copper — the increased demand and output may raise the cost of production. In any case, the price will have a definite effect on demand, output, and cost of production just as these in turn will affect price. All four — demand, supply, cost, and price — are interrelated. A change in one will bring changes in the others.

Just as the demand, supply, cost, and price of any single commodity are all interrelated, so are the prices of all commodities related to each other. These relationships are both direct and indirect. Copper mines may yield silver as a by-product. This is connexity of production. If the price of copper goes too high, consumers may substitute aluminum for many uses. This is a connexity of substitution. Dacron and cotton are both used in drip-dry shirts; this is a connexity of consumption.

In addition to these relatively direct connections among prices, there is an inescapable interconnexity of all prices. One general factor of production, labor, can be diverted, in the short run or in the long run, directly or indirectly, from one line into any other line. If one commodity goes up in price, and consumers are unwilling or unable to substitute another, they will be forced to consume a little less of something else. All products are in competition for the consumer's dollar; and a change in any one price will affect an indefinite number of other prices.

No single price, therefore, can be considered an isolated object in itself. It is interrelated with all other prices. It is precisely through these interrelationships that society is able to solve the immensely difficult and always changing problem of how to allocate production among thousands of different commodities and services so that each may be supplied as nearly as possible in relation to the comparative urgency of the need or desire for it.

Because the desire and need for, and the supply and cost of, every individual commodity or service are constantly changing, prices and price relationships are constantly changing. They are changing yearly, monthly, weekly, daily, hourly. People who think that prices normally rest at some fixed point, or can be easily held to some "right" level, could profitably spend an hour watching the ticker tape of the stock market, or reading the daily report in the newspapers of what happened yesterday in the foreign exchange market, and in the markets for coffee, cocoa, sugar, wheat, corn, rice, and eggs; cotton, hides, wool, and rubber; copper, silver, lead, and zinc. They will find that none of these prices ever stands still. This is why the constant attempts of governments to lower, raise, or freeze a particular price, or to freeze the interrelationship of wages and prices just where it was on a given date ("holding the line") are bound to be disruptive wherever they are not futile.

Price Supports for Export Items

Let us begin by considering governmental efforts to keep prices up, or to raise them. Governments most frequently try to do this for commodities that constitute a principal item of export from their countries. Thus Japan once did it for silk and the British Empire for natural rubber; Brazil has done it and still periodically does it for coffee; and the United States has done it and still does it for cotton and wheat. The theory is that raising the price of these export commodities can only do good and no harm domestically because it will raise the incomes of domestic producers and do it almost wholly at the expense of the foreign consumers.

All of these schemes follow a typical course. It is soon discovered that the price of the commodity cannot be raised unless the supply is first reduced. This may lead in the beginning to the imposition of acreage restrictions. But the higher price gives an incentive to producers to increase their average yield per acre by planting the supported product only on their most productive acres, and by more intensive employment of fertilizers, irrigation, and labor. When the government discovers that this is happening, it turns to imposing absolute quantitative controls on each producer. This is usually based on each producer's previous production over a series of years. The result of this quota system is to keep out all new competition; to lock all existing producers into their previous relative position, and therefore to keep production costs high by removing the chief mechanisms and incentives for reducing such costs. The necessary readjustments are therefore prevented from taking place.

Meanwhile, however, market forces are still functioning in foreign countries. Foreigners object to paying the higher price. They cut down their purchases of the valorized commodity from the valorizing country, and search for other sources of supply. The higher price gives an incentive to other countries to start producing the valorized commodity. Thus, the British rubber scheme led Dutch producers to increase rubber production in Dutch dependencies. This not only lowered rubber prices but caused the British to lose permanently their previous monopolistic position. In addition, the British scheme aroused resentment in the United States, the chief consumer, and stimulated the eventually successful development of synthetic rubber. In the same way, without going into detail, Brazil's coffee schemes and America's cotton schemes gave both a political and a price incentive to other countries to initiate or increase production of coffee and cotton, and both Brazil and the United States lost their previous monopolistic positions.

Meanwhile, at home, all these schemes require the setting up of an elaborate system of controls and an elaborate bureaucracy to formulate and enforce them. This has to be elaborate, because each individual producer must be controlled. An illustration of what happens may be found in the United States Department of Agriculture. In 1929, before most of the crop-control schemes came into being, there were 24,000 persons employed in the Department of Agriculture. Today there are 109,000. These enormous bureaucracies, of course, always have a vested interest in finding reasons why the controls they were hired to enforce should be continued and expanded. And of course these controls restrict the individual's liberty and set precedents for still further restrictions.

None of these consequences seem to discourage government efforts to boost prices of certain products above what would otherwise be their competitive market levels. We still have international coffee agreements and international wheat agreements. A particular irony is that the United States was among the sponsors in organizing the international coffee agreement, though its people are the chief consumers of coffee and therefore the most immediate victims of the agreement. Another irony is that the United States imposes import quotas on sugar, which necessarily discriminate in favor of some sugar exporting nations and therefore against others. These quotas force all American consumers to pay higher prices for sugar in order that a tiny minority of American sugar cane producers can get higher prices.

I need not point out that these attempts to "stabilize" or raise prices of primary agricultural products politicalize every price and production decision and create friction among nations.

Holding Prices Down

Now let us turn to governmental efforts to lower prices or at least to keep them from rising. These efforts occur repeatedly in most nations, not only in wartime, but in any time of inflation. The typical process is something like this. The government, for whatever reason, follows policies that increase the quantity of money and credit. This inevitably starts pushing up prices. But this is not popular with consumers. Therefore, the government promises that it will "hold the line" against further price increases.

Let us say it begins with bread and milk and other necessities. The first thing that happens, assuming that it can enforce its decrees, is that the profit margin in producing necessities falls, or is eliminated, for marginal producers, while the profit margin in producing luxuries is unchanged or goes higher. This reduces and discourages the production of the controlled necessities and relatively encourages the increased production of luxuries. But this is exactly the opposite result from what the price controllers had in mind. If the government then tries to prevent this discouragement to the production of the controlled commodities by keeping down the cost of the raw materials, labor, and other factors of production that go into them, it must start controlling prices and wages in ever-widening circles until it is finally trying to control the price of everything.

But if it tries to do this thoroughly and consistently, it will find itself trying to control literally millions of prices and trillions of price cross-relationships. It will be fixing rigid allocations and quotas for each producer and for each consumer. Of course these controls will have to extend in detail to both importers and exporters.

If a government continues to create more currency on the one hand while rigidly holding down prices with the other, it will do immense harm. And let us note also that even if the government is not inflating the currency, but tries to hold either absolute or relative prices just where they were, or has instituted an "incomes policy" or "wage policy" drafted in accordance with some mechanical formula, it will do increasingly serious harm. For in a free market, even when the so-called price "level" is not changing, all prices are constantly changing in relation to each other. They are responding to changes in costs of production, of supply, and of demand for each commodity or service.

And these price changes, both absolute and relative, are in the overwhelming main both necessary and desirable. For they are drawing capital, labor, and other resources out of the production of goods and services that are less wanted and into the production of goods and services that are more wanted. They are adjusting the balance of production to the unceasing changes in demand. They are producing thousands of goods and services in the relative amounts in which they are socially wanted. These relative amounts are changing every day. Therefore the market adjustments and price and wage incentives that lead to these adjustments must be changing every day.

Price Control Distorts Production

Price control always reduces, unbalances, distorts, and discoordinates production. Price control becomes progressively harmful with the passage of time. Even a fixed price or price relationship that may be "right" or "reasonable" on the day it is set can become increasingly unreasonable or unworkable.

What governments never realize is that, so far as any individual commodity is concerned, the cure for high prices is high prices. High prices lead to economy in consumption and stimulate and increase production. Both of these results increase supply and tend to bring prices down again.

Very well, someone may say; so government price control in many cases is harmful. But so far you have been talking as if the market were governed by perfect competition. But what of monopolistic markets? What of markets in which prices are controlled or fixed by huge corporations? Must not the government intervene here, if only to enforce competition or to bring about the price that real competition would bring if it existed?

The fears of most economists concerning the evils of "monopoly" have been unwarranted and certainly excessive. In the first place, it is very difficult to frame a satisfactory definition of economic monopoly. If there is only a single drug store, barber shop, or grocery in a small isolated town (and this is a typical situation), this store may be said to be enjoying a monopoly in that town. Again, everybody may be said to enjoy a monopoly of his own particular qualities or talents. Yehudi Menuhin has a monopoly of Menuhin's violin playing; Picasso of producing Picasso paintings; Elizabeth Taylor of her particular beauty and sex appeal; and so for lesser qualities and talents in every line.

On the other hand, nearly all economic monopolies are limited by the possibility of substitution. If copper piping is priced too high, consumers can substitute steel or plastic; if beef is too high, consumers can substitute lamb; if the original girl of your dreams rejects you, you can always marry somebody else. Thus, nearly every person, producer, or seller may enjoy a quasi monopoly within certain inner limits, but very few sellers are able to exploit that monopoly beyond certain outer limits. There has been a tremendous literature within recent years deploring the absence of perfect competition; there could have been equal emphasis on the absence of perfect monopoly. In real life competition is never perfect, but neither is monopoly.

Unable to find many examples of perfect monopoly, some economists have frightened themselves in recent years by conjuring up the specter of "oligopoly," the competition of the few. But they have come to their alarming conclusions only by inserting in their own hypotheses all sorts of imaginary secret agreements or tacit understandings between large producing units, and deducing what the results could be.

Now the mere number of competitors in a particular industry may have very little to do with the existence of effective competition. If General Electric and Westinghouse effectively compete, if General Motors and Ford and Chrysler effectively compete, if the Chase Manhattan and the First National City Bank effectively compete, and so on (and no person who has had direct experience with these great companies can doubt that they dominantly do), then the result for consumers, not only in price, but in quality of product or service, is not only as good as that which would be brought about by atomistic competition but much better, because consumers have the advantage of large-scale economies, and of large-scale research and development that small companies could not afford.

A Strange Numbers Game

The oligopoly theorists have had a baneful influence on the American antitrust division and on court decisions. The prosecutors and the courts have recently been playing a strange numbers game. In 1965, for example, a Federal district court held that a merger that had taken place between two New York City banks four years previously had been illegal, and must now be dissolved. The combined bank was not the largest in the city, but only the third largest; the merger had in fact enabled the bank to compete more effectively with its two larger competitors; its combined assets were still only one-eighth of those represented by all the banks of the city; and the merger itself had reduced the number of separate banks in New York from 71 to 70. (I should add that in the four years since the merger the number of branch bank offices in New York City had increased from 645 to 698.) The court agreed with the bank's lawyers that "the general public and small business have benefited" from bank mergers in the city. Nevertheless, the court continued, "practices harmless in themselves, or even those conferring benefits upon the community, cannot be tolerated when they tend to create a monopoly; those which restrict competition are unlawful no matter how beneficent they may be."

It is a strange thing, incidentally, that though politicians and the courts think it necessary to forbid an existing merger in order to increase the number of banks in a city from 70 to 71, they have no such insistence on big numbers in competition when it comes to political parties. The dominant American theory is that just two political parties are enough to give the American voter a real choice; that when there are more than this it merely causes confusion, and the people are not really served. There is this much truth in this political theory as applied in the economic realm. If they are really competing, only two firms in an industry are enough to create effective competition.

Monopolistic Pricing

The real problem is not whether or not there is "monopoly" in a market, but whether there is monopolistic pricing. A monopoly price can arise when the responsiveness of demand is such that the monopolist can obtain a higher net income by selling a smaller quantity of his product at a higher price than by selling a larger quantity at a lower price. It is assumed that in this way the monopolist can realize a higher price than would have prevailed under "pure competition."

The theory that there can be such a thing as a monopoly price, higher than a competitive price would have been, is certainly valid. The real question is, How useful is this theory either to the supposed monopolist in deciding his price policies or to the legislator, prosecutor, or court in framing antimonopoly policies? The monopolist, to be able to exploit his position, must know what the "demand curve" is for his product. He does not know; he can only guess; he must try to find out by trial and error. And it is not merely the unemotional price response of the consumers that the monopolist must keep in mind; it is what the effect of his pricing policies will probably be in gaining the goodwill or arousing the resentment of the consumer. More importantly, the monopolist must consider the effect of his pricing policies in either encouraging or discouraging the entrance of competitors into the field. He may actually decide that his wisest policy in the long run would be to fix a price no higher than he thinks pure competition would set, and perhaps even a little lower.

In any case, in the absence of competition, no one knows what the "competitive" price would be if it existed. Therefore, no one knows exactly how much higher an existing "monopoly" price is than a "competitive" price would be, and no one can be sure whether it is higher at all!

Yet antitrust policy, in the United States, at least, assumes that the courts can know how much an alleged monopoly or "conspiracy" price is above the competitive price that might-have-been. For when there is an alleged conspiracy to fix prices, purchasers are encouraged to sue to recover three times the amount they were allegedly forced to "overpay."

Our analysis leads us to the conclusion that governments should refrain, wherever possible, from trying to fix either maximum or minimum prices for anything. Where they have nationalized any service — the post office or the railroads, the telephone or electric power — they will of course have to establish pricing policies. And where they have granted monopolistic franchises — for subways, railroads, telephone or power companies — they will of course have to consider what price restrictions they will impose.

As to antimonopoly policy, whatever the present condition may be in other countries, I can testify that in the United States this policy shows hardly a trace of consistency. It is uncertain, discriminatory, retroactive, capricious, and shot through with contradictions. No company today, even a moderate sized company, can know when it will be held to have violated the antitrust laws, or why. It all depends on the economic bias of a particular court or judge.

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There is immense hypocrisy about the subject. Politicians make eloquent speeches against "monopoly." Then they will impose tariffs and import quotas intended to protect monopoly and keep out competition; they will grant monopolistic franchises to bus companies or telephone companies; they will approve monopolistic patents and copyrights; they will try to control agricultural production to permit monopolistic farm prices. Above all, they will not only permit but impose labor monopolies on employers, and legally compel employers to "bargain" with these monopolies; and they will even allow these monopolies to impose their conditions by physical intimidation and coercion.

I suspect that the intellectual situation and the political climate in this respect is not much different in other countries. To work our way out of this existing legal chaos is, of course, a task for jurists as well as for economists. I have one modest suggestion: We can get a great deal of help from the old common law, which forbids fraud, misrepresentation, and all physical intimidation and coercion. "The end of the law," as John Locke reminded us in the 17th century, "is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom." And so we can say today that in the economic realm, the aim of the law should not be to constrict but to maximize price freedom and market freedom.


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