The Miracle of the Price System

This week’s post at e3ne.org is about the miracle of the price system:

Natural disasters harm people’s standard of living by destroying resources, but in a free marketplace, rising prices and profits in scarce goods give both buyers and sellers an incentive to heal the economic wound. Drawn by the possibility of making good profits at high prices, sellers bring the scarce goods to market from afar. Facing high prices, buyers demand less of the scarce goods than they would if prices were not allowed to rise.

For this reason, George Mason University economist Alex Tabarrok calls a price a “signal wrapped up in an incentive”…

Read more.

As it happens, I’ve also assigned this week F.A. Hayek’s article, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” in my Dartmouth course this term, American Political Economy. Hayek’s article is itself a kind of minor miracle, in that it was published in the world’s top economic journal, The American Economic Review, despite having no equations in it and a grand total of one cited reference.

Hayek’s point is that the free market’s price system aggregates and condenses distributed, particular information unknown to most market actors. No one has to know where all the stocks of a scarce resources are located, and what the relative valuations of that resource are to all possible consumers, for the market to allocate the resource to the highest-valuing users from the lowest-cost producers. A price is a signal wrapped up in an incentive.

At the end of Hayek’s article there is a wee bit of gloating about how he and Mises had persuaded the rest of the profession that economic calculation is impossible without prices. The state of the debate ended as a sort of compromise between the two original positions. The socialists had conceded that economic calculation was impossible without market prices, and the free-marketeers had conceded that, in principle, a decentralized socialist economy could generate market prices.

The problem for even a decentralized socialism is that while it can have price signals, it lacks the virtue of the “incentive” feature of prices. I might know that the price of lumber is high in New Jersey after a hurricane, but if I’m sitting on a warehouse full of lumber in Oregon, I won’t necessarily ship that lumber to New Jersey unless I can reap the extra-normal profits afforded by those high prices. If I’m not the “residual claimant” on the value of the lumber, I might as well send it to my political cronies, or not do anything with it at all, which might be the easiest course of action. Even decentralized socialism with price signals, for instance as attempted in Yugoslavia in the 1970s and 1980s, fails on account of its poor incentives.

2 thoughts on “The Miracle of the Price System

  1. If any article without graphs, equations, or (hardly) any references deserved publication in AER, it was this one. My guess, however, is that AER would not even sniff that article today.

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