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Should There Also Be “Queue Controls”?

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Here’s a letter to another person who caught a radio interview with me this morning:

Mr. Kasim Wagner

Mr. Wagner:

Thanks for your e-mail.

You write that “it plainly is wrong for anyone to force people to pay higher prices for supplies in disaster areas” and, therefore, “government’s duty is to protect people from this greed.”

First, I agree that it’s wrong to force people to pay higher prices.  But we’re not talking about forcing people to pay higher prices.  Every buyer is free not to pay higher prices.  Of course, those people who don’t pay higher prices don’t get the goods.  Yet people are no more forced to pay whatever prices they pay because of natural disasters than they were forced to pay whatever prices they paid before any natural disaster became a reality.  All of those prices are paid voluntarily – a fact that is both economically and ethically relevant.

Second, if you truly believe that it’s unethical for anyone self-interestedly to cause consumers’ costs of acquiring much-needed goods to rise significantly, then you must believe that it’s unethical for people to rush into, and to stand in, the long lines that occur whenever there are shortages of goods.  Every person standing in front of Jones in a line of consumers hoping to buy, say, bottled water self-interestedly puts his or her own welfare ahead of that of Jones.  Each of those persons standing in front of Jones – both by increasing the chance that the store will run out of bottled water by the time Jones reaches the front of the line, and by increasing the amount of time that Jones waits in line – raises Jones’s cost of acquiring bottled water.

Do you believe that the individuals standing in line in front of Jones are unethical?  Should government, in addition to imposing a ceiling on the monetary price that people pay for bottled water, also impose a “queue ceiling” on the number of people who stand in line to buy bottled water?  If, as I suspect, your answer to each of these questions is “no,” why do you believe that government should prohibit only those increases in the costs of acquiring a good that take the form of increases in the monetary price of the good?

Sincerely,
Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
and
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030

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