Some Economics of True Price Floors

by Don Boudreaux on July 21, 2022

in Archived writings, Prices, Seen and Unseen

In my latest column for AIER, I review some basic economics of true price floors. A slice:

Suppose that the government imposes a true price floor in the market for pickles. The government declares illegal all purchases and sales of pickles at prices below, say, $10 per pound (which price, let’s assume, is above the market price that would prevail absent the price floor).

The first and most obvious effect of this price floor is that the quantity of pickles that consumers are willing to buy will fall; the quantity that consumers demand will be driven lower than it would be without the price floor. If pickle producers are economically naïve, this price floor will create a physical surplus of pickles as producers, attracted by the higher price, increase their production of pickles. But even the most naïve pickle producers will soon learn that consumers are willing to buy at the high price-floor not only fewer pickles than producers are willing to produce and sell at that high floored price, but even fewer than consumers were willing to buy at prices lower than the floored price.

Discovering themselves unable to sell all of the output they are willing to sell at the price floor, pickle producers reduce their production. They produce no greater amount of pickles than consumers are willing to buy at the high price floor. So while price ceilings always create shortages, price floors don’t always create physical surpluses.

Nevertheless, because price floors do always reduce the quantities that buyers wish to buy while increasing sellers’ willingness to produce and sell, price floors create a second negative consequence – namely, the need for some means to determine which sellers will be among the lucky ones to sell at the higher price and which sellers will not be able to take advantage of the higher price by actually selling units of output at that price.

This determination might be done by luck or random chance. Perhaps only those sellers who encounter consumers early will be able to sell, while sellers who get to market too late find no more buyers.

But luck or random chance is unlikely to operate for long. Eager to sell at the high price floor, sellers will compete for buyers in ways other than cutting prices. A third negative consequence of a price floor is, thus, that the quality of the price-floored good rises. Pickle producers might attach to each jar they sell “free” coupons for discounts on crackers or deli meats or beer. These producers might work harder to make their pickles even tastier. Such non-price competition for consumer patronage is an inevitable result of price floors.

Unlike with the quality reductions caused by price ceilings, the impetus to quality improvements caused by price floors perhaps seems to be a positive consequence rather than, as I’ve described it, a negative one. But negative it is when compared to what the situation would be absent the price floor.

It’s true that, given that consumers aren’t allowed to buy pickles at any price below $10 per pound, they like their pickles being even tastier or sold with discount coupons. But what consumers would like even more is to pay a lower price for a lower-quality product. Were there no price floor in place, consumers would reveal through their spending that the higher quality isn’t worth the higher price. Yet because lower prices are unlawful – that is, because consumers must pay the higher price if they want pickles – consumers settle for the second-best outcome of paying this higher price for a higher-quality product.

Price floors, in short, compel consumers to buy too few units but too much quality.

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