When thinking about the difference between government action and action taken by free people trading voluntarily in markets, we find that many myths abound. Tom G. Palmer, who is Vice President for International Programs at the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, General Director of the Atlas Global Initiative for Free Trade, Peace, and Prosperity, a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, and Director of Cato University, has written an important paper that confronts these myths about markets. The seventeenth myth — When Prices are Liberalized and Subject to Market Forces, They Just Go Up — and Palmer’s refutation is below. The complete series of myths and responses is at Twenty Myths about Markets.
Palmer is editor of the recent book The Morality of Capitalism. He will be in Overland Park and Wichita in May speaking on the moral case for capitalism. For more information and to register for these events see The Morality of Capitalism. An eleven minute podcast of Palmer speaking on this topic is at The Morality of Capitalism.
Myth: When Prices are Liberalized and Subject to Market Forces, They Just Go Up
Myth: The fact is that when prices are left to market forces, without government controls, they just go up, meaning that people can afford less and less. Free-market pricing is just another name for high prices.
Tom G. Palmer: Prices that are controlled at below market levels do tend to rise, at least over the short time, when they are freed. But there is much more to the story than that. For one thing, some controlled prices are kept above the market level, so that when they are freed, they tend to fall. Moreover, when looking at money prices that are controlled by state power, it’s important to remember that the money that changes hands over the table is not usually the only price paid by those who successfully purchase the goods. If the goods are rationed by queuing, then the time spent waiting in line is a part of what people have to spend to get the goods. (Notably, however, that waiting time represents pure waste, since it’s not time that is somehow transferred to producers to induce them to make more of the goods to satisfy the unmet demand.) If corrupt officials have their hands open, there are also the payments under the table that have to be added to the payment that is made over the table. The sum of the legal payment, the illegal bribes, and the time spent waiting in lines when maximum prices are imposed by the state on goods and services is quite often higher than the price that people would agree on through the market. Moreover, the money spent on bribes and the time spent on waiting are wasted — they are spent by consumers but not received by producers, so they provide no incentive for producers to produce more and thereby alleviate the shortage caused by price controls.
While money prices may go up in the short time when prices are freed, the result is to increase production and diminish wasteful rationing and corruption, with the result that total real prices — expressed in terms of a basic commodity, human labor time — goes down. The amount of time that a person had to spend laboring to earn a loaf of bread in 1800 was a serious fraction of his or her laboring day; as wages have gone up and up and up and up, the amount of working time necessary to buy a loaf of bread has fallen to just a few minutes in wealthy countries. Measured in terms of labor, the prices of all other goods have fallen dramatically, with one exception: labor itself. As labor productivity and wages rise, hiring human labor becomes more expensive, which is why modestly well off people in poor countries commonly have servants, whereas even very wealthy people in rich countries find it much cheaper to buy machines to wash their clothes and dishes. The result of free markets is a fall in the price of everything else in terms of labor, and a rise in the price of labor in terms of everything else.