Indulge me with a thought experiment. One morning the ruler of our country, Dear Leader, decides that India’s poverty is unbearable to him. The people must be made rich. What is a metric of wealth? The automobile! Everyone should have a car! More people will then buy petrol and the economy will recover!
Dear Leader goes on his evening podcast and announces to the nation that henceforth, there will be a price cap on cars. All cars will have to be sold at the very affordable price of Rs 1 lakh only. What will happen?
You don’t need to know economics to answer this. Common sense will do. All manufacturers will stop making cars that cost more than Rs 1 lakh, for why would they sell at a loss? Existing inventory will be disposed of on a first-come-first-serve basis – or in the black market to those privileged with wealth and access. Eventually, there will be no new cars at all.
This seems like a dystopian scenario, but thought experiments can shed light on everyday principles by dressing them up in outrageous garb. The everyday principle here is this: price controls always lead to shortages. And yet, our politicians do not understand this.
The government recently announced that they are planning to put a cap on the prices of some hygiene products. This is a terrible idea. In any competitive market, producers are already driven by competition to sell at the lowest price point they can afford. If you set a price cap that is below this mark, they will have to stop manufacturing. The price cap will not offer any additional benefit to consumers – and will reduce the choices available to them.
How do prices work? Why do price caps hurt? I like to illustrate this with the example of Uber’s surge pricing. This mimics markets, with prices responding in real time to supply and demand. It has also caused much outrage, with users often complaining about Uber’s exploitative pricing during peak hours. Perfect example.
Imagine a miniature Uber world in which, at a specific moment, there are 50 available cars for 100 customers. There’s a mismatch between supply and demand, and Econ 101 tells you that the price should go up. But Dear Leader puts a price cap. What will happen?
Two things. One, the 50 available cars go to customers on a first-come-first serve basis, and 50 customers are left stranded. Some of those who are left stranded may have urgent needs, like catching a flight or going to hospital in an emergency. They would value the ride more. They would be willing to pay more. Some of those who do get cars may have a trivial need, and would gladly not take the trip if the price was too high. (They could use public transport or Netflix-and-chill at home.) First-come-first-serve doesn’t distinguish between the two. A surge price would reflect the scarcity of the ride, and signal its true value.
There is a second effect that is deeper than this allocation effect. A high price sends a signal to the marketplace. It incentivises Uber drivers taking a break to make themselves available. More cars get on the road. More needs get served. Over the long term, the money in driving Ubers might even incentivise people to move from less profitable professions to driving taxis. In a free market, prices carry the information that push people towards deriving the best value from their skills. Price caps stop this information. They perpetuate imbalances between supply and demand, which the market would otherwise sort out.
Whenever a ban on Uber’s surge pricing has been tried out in India, it has led to shortages. A friend of mine actually missed a flight in Delhi when the government there experimented with it. What if she had a medical emergency at that time?
Another example: A few months ago, the government imposed price caps on stents. As you’d expect, it resulted in shortages, as all advanced stents that cost more than the cap became unavailable. This reduced the choices available to patients. How can this be good?
Economists agree on how prices work the same way physicists agree on the law of gravity. There is no ideological disagreement. Why, then, do politicians keep imposing price caps?
The cynical view is that politicians don’t care about whether price caps work economically, as long as they work politically. Price caps signal compassion. “I care about you,” the politician signals, “and how expensive you find everything.” Voters often do not have the economic literacy to figure out that good intentions often lead to bad outcomes, and policies meant to help the poor can hurt them instead.
It is also possible that our economically illiterate politicians have genuine faith in their powers. They suffer from a ‘God Delusion’. They believe that legislation can change reality. This is delusional. It leads me to wonder, given the scarcity of sensible netas, what would be the value of a good politician?