Prices and Prohibitions

The summer is now in full swing, and with it comes the establishment's annual concern with overburdened utilities. The public is instructed, in the name of civic duty, to refrain from "unnecessary" water and electrical usage: Resist the temptation of a weekly car wash, and do not complain when the office thermostat corresponds to Dante's third level of Hell. In many communities, these moral exhortations are backed by government decree, and citizens are urged to report to the authorities any selfish neighbors who dare violate the farsighted regulations.

Yet one question remains unanswered: Why is it that only government services become scarce during the summer months? After all, Oscar Meyer does not implore its customers to moderate their consumption, lest we run out of hot dogs. Budweiser does not restrict the purchase of beer to odd-numbered days. Swimming pool suppliers with toll-free numbers do not scold callers with "non-essential" concerns, and blame them for "clogging" the phone system. Rather than lament the seasonal jump in demand for their products, private businesspeople lick their chops in anticipation. As one snack advertisement put it: "Eat all you want; we'll make more."

One of the few relevant lessons of Econ 101 is this: When the government sets an artificially low price for a product or service, the result must be a shortage. Then the automatic, voluntary rationing performed by market prices must be replaced by government prohibitions based ultimately on threats of violence. Goods are not channeled to those most willing to pay for them, but instead are allotted via a one-size-fits-all bureaucratic fiat.

The government monopoly of utilities will be defended on the grounds that these services are simply indispensable, and as a society we will not tolerate the reservation of such amenities to merely the rich. But this is romantic nonsense. Two years ago, as a struggling college grad in a decidedly ethnic Chicago neighborhood – my former roommate swears that teens referred to him as "el blanco" as they drove by – I was in no way aided by Con Edison's contingency plan to deal with a potential generator failure. The plan called for "rolling blackouts," which meant that selected neighborhoods would experience temporary power outages in order to prevent the collapse of the entire electrical grid. Although the exact details of the plan were kept secret – in order to prevent premeditated looting – there was no doubt that the affected neighborhoods would be neither affluent nor white. My neighbors and I would have been far better off paying more to a "gouging" private firm than being forced to "take one for the team" by the ostensibly benevolent Mayor Daley.

The supply of usable water or electricity is not a God-given quantity; it is determined by human beings. We trust private individuals to provide consumers with hot dogs, beer, and swimming pools, and they have never once let us down. Can we say the same for the government's provision of life's necessities?

July 7, 2000

Bob Murphy is a graduate student in New York City.