The recent coronavirus panic has provided a stark reminder about the scarcity of economic goods. From people hoarding and stockpiling common household items like toilet paper and hand sanitizer to the downright morbid reports of doctors in Italy and Spain having to pick and choose who should receive medical care, the issue of resource scarcity has been thrust front and center.
To be clear, when economists refer to scarcity, it doesn’t just refer to empty shelves or a general lack of supply of something. Instead, we mean that goods are objects of choice: its use for one purpose or user precludes it from use for another purpose or user.
A bottle of hand sanitizer is scarce because when one person uses it for his hands, it is not available for another person’s use. Ventilators and hospital beds are also scarce; if Jane is using a bed and ventilator, it is not available for John’s use.
This leads us to conclude a key economic truth: all goods must be rationed. How a society overcomes this issue of scarcity and the method of rationing scarce goods determines that society’s well-being and standard of living.
When the method of rationing facilitates efficient allocation of resources toward society’s most urgent needs, while encouraging productive behavior, the economy will flourish. If an inefficient means of resource allocation is used, poverty and shortages follow.
Moreover, the issue of scarcity gives rise to the dilemma of multiple people desiring to lay claim to the same resource. Therefore, the method by which scarce goods are allocated will determine how people compete to obtain that good.
So, what are some methods by which scarce goods are allocated, and what does the current crisis reveal about each one?
First come, first served: Under this method, whoever is first to claim or physically obtain the good gets to keep it. Time becomes a currency of sorts in this method, as those willing to forego other uses of their time in order to be among the first in line will be rewarded. It may also involve a little luck as well, with those who happen to be closest to some valuable good having the greatest ease of getting to it first.
We’ve witnessed this method emerge with the panic buying of toilet paper and hand sanitizer because prices have not been not allowed to adjust due to anti-price gouging laws. Those willing and able to get to the front of the line clear out the shelves, leaving nothing for everyone else.
When freely adjusting prices aren’t allowed to work, and instead a method of first come, first served emerges, the cost to consumers is time. Those willing to pay the highest cost in terms of time (i.e. spend hours waiting for a store to open so they are first in line) acquire the most goods.
Unfortunately, this method does not allow prices to reflect relative demand and scarcity, preventing valuable signals to guide producers to direct goods where they are most urgently needed. And this method does not encourage productive behavior, as those consumers who spend more time waiting in lines rather than working are rewarded.
Critics claim that allowing prices to rise rapidly during emergencies may price some completely out of the market for a much-needed product during a time of distress. But empty shelves created by shortages also force many to go without. And the only way to bring prices back down without causing shortages and heavy time costs on consumers (via long lines) is to allow for prices to signal to producers to direct current supplies to where they are in most short supply, and incentivize them to produce more of the good in question. Freely adjusting prices can rapidly enable supply to surge and meet demand, and bring prices back down.
An authority distributes goods based on “need”: Under this method an authority figure decides who gets what, by determining who is in most desperate need. Concentrating so much power over scarce goods into the hands of a single person or committee invites corruption. As such, people are incentivized to bribe or threaten the decision-makers to obtain what they desire. Lobbying becomes more rewarding than investments in productivity.
Moreover, attempting to distribute by “need” subjects distribution to the arbitrary definition of “need” by the authority figure. Potential consumers are incentivized to remain “needy” according to the definition of the authorities in order to gain access to goods and services. Think of the poverty trap created by the welfare state.
This also gives rise to the rationing of medical care we’ve seen emerge in countries like Italy and Spain, where the authorities are determining that young people are more worthy of scarce medical care during the coronavirus pandemic than older people who have fewer quality years of life left.
This method also removes crucial price signals that would both incentivize increased production of those goods and services in most urgent demand, and the distribution of these goods to where they are most urgently needed. The costs can be fatal.
People have little incentive to be productive out of fear of losing access to goods and services because the authority may not deem them “needy” enough.
Neither of those options seems like a particularly efficient (or fair) means by which to allocate scarce resources. Which brings us to:
Exchange of private property with freely adjusting prices: Private property implies that goods have an owner, and that owner is the one with just and legal authority to determine how that good is used. The owner can consume it, use it for productive purposes, stockpile it or trade it. One acquires rights over (already owned) property thru voluntary exchange, whether those exchanges involve goods for goods, goods for money, or money for labor.
Under such a system, in order to compete for desired goods, one must offer something of value in exchange, unlike the other previously mentioned methods. This incentivizes greater productivity – the key to improving the standard of living for a society.
Furthermore, not only does this system create a greater abundance of goods and services desired by society, but it more efficiently allocates them to their most urgent uses.
Price signals provide valuable information and incentives to market participants. High prices of relatively scarce goods incentivize consumers to economize on the more expensive goods, while also encouraging producers to create more of that good in pursuit of higher revenue and profits. Shortages vanish.
Low prices encourage consumers to buy more, while telling producers that their productive resources are more urgently needed elsewhere. Surpluses are eliminated.
The method society chooses for how scarce resources are allocated will generate very different types of behavior, and results.
The coronavirus panic has revealed that when government interferes with market prices and the exchange of private property, other means of distribution will emerge. These other methods, however, are far less efficient and more unfair.
A system based on private property rights and free exchange based on freely adjusting prices provides the framework for the most efficient and fair allocation of scarce resources, while also encouraging more productive activity. The result is a more prosperous society, one far better equipped to meet society’s most urgent needs, especially so during times of emergency.
Bradley Thomas is creator of the website Erasethestate.com and is a libertarian activist who enjoys researching and writing on the freedom philosophy and Austrian economics.
Follow him on twitter: Bradley Thomas @erasestate