What Are Price Controls?

The term "price controls" refers to the legal minimum or maximum prices set for specified goods. Price controls are normally mandated by the government in the free market. They are usually implemented as a means of direct economic intervention to manage the affordability of certain goods and services, including rent, gasoline, and food. Although it may make certain goods and services more affordable, price controls can often lead to disruptions in the market, losses for producers, and a noticeable change in quality.

Key Takeaways

  • Price controls are government-mandated minimum or maximum prices set for specific goods and services.
  • Price controls are put in place to manage the affordability of goods and services on the market.
  • Minimums are called price floors while maximums are called price ceilings.
  • These controls are only effective on an extremely short-term basis.
  • Over the long term, price controls can lead to problems such as shortages, rationing, inferior product quality, and black markets.

Understanding Price Controls

As mentioned above, price controls are a form of government-mandated economic intervention. They are meant to make things more affordable for consumers and are also commonly used to help steer the economy in a certain direction. For instance, these restrictions may be deemed necessary in order to curb inflation. Price controls are opposite to prices set by market forces, which are determined by producers because of supply and demand.

Price controls are commonly imposed on consumer staples. These are essential items, such as food or energy products. For instance, prices were capped for things like rent and gasoline in the United States. Controls set by the government may impose minimums or maximums. Price caps are referred to as price ceilings while minimum prices are called price floors.

Although the reasons for price controls may be affordability and economic stability, they may have the opposite effect. Over the long term, price controls have been known to lead to problems such as shortages, rationing, deterioration of product quality, and black markets that arise to supply the price-controlled goods through unofficial channels. Producers may experience losses, especially if prices are set too low. This can often lead to a drop in the quality of available goods and services.

Some economists believe that price controls are usually only effective on an extremely short-term basis.

History of Price Controls

Price controls aren't a new concept. In fact, they go back thousands of years. According to historians, the production and distribution of grain were regulated by Egyptian authorities in the third century B.C. Other civilizations implemented price controls, including the Babylonians, the ancient Greeks, and the Roman empire.

We can find instances of price control in more modern times, including during times of war and revolution. In the United States, colonial governments controlled the prices of commodities required by George Washington's army, which resulted in severe shortages.

Governments continue to intervene and set limits to how producers can price their products and services. For instance, municipal governments often limit how much rent a landlord can collect from their tenants and the amount by which they can increase these rents in order to make housing more affordable. The U.S. government also set price caps on energy prices during times of crisis, including World War I and II and between 1971 and 1973.

Types of Price Controls

Price controls come in two forms: Price floors and price ceilings. Price floors are the minimum prices set for goods and services. They may be set by the government or, in some cases, by producers themselves. Minimum prices are imposed to help producers when authorities believe that prices are too low, leading to an unfair market. Once set, prices can't fall below the minimum.

Price ceilings or caps are the highest points at which goods and services can be sold. This occurs when authorities want to help consumers if they feel that prices are far too high. This is especially true in the case of rent control when government agencies want to protect tenants from slumlords and overzealous landlords. Just like price floors, prices can't go above ceilings once they're set.

Example of Price Controls

Rent control is one of the most common forms of price control. Government programs establish limits on the maximum amount of rent a property owner can collect from their tenants. These limits are also imposed on annual rent increases. The rationale behind rent control is that it helps keep housing affordable, especially for more vulnerable people like those with lower incomes and the elderly.

Governments commonly impose controls on drug prices. This is especially true for life-saving and specialty medications like insulin. Drug companies often come under pressure for setting prices too high. Their rationale is normally patent protection and to cover the expensive costs of research and development (R&D) and distribution. Consumers and governments say this puts certain medications out of reach for the average citizen.

Minimum wages are considered a form of price control as well. In this case, it is a price floor or the lowest possible salary an employer can pay to their employees. Minimum wages ensure that individuals can maintain a specific standard of living.

Sports franchises often put price controls on tickets to make attendance more affordable for all fans.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Price Controls

Advantages

Price controls are often imposed when governments feel that consumers can't afford goods and services. For instance, price ceilings are established to prevent producers from price gouging. This is common in the housing/rental industry and in the drug/health sector.

Governments may also set price limits on goods and services if they feel that producers aren't benefiting from how goods and services are priced in the free market. This allows companies to remain competitive and ensure that they are profitable.

Controlling how prices are set keeps companies from developing monopolies. Companies are at an advantage and can dictate prices when demand is high (and supply is short). As such, they may be able to inflate prices to boost their profits. Governments can intervene and set price ceilings to prevent suppliers from continuing to raise prices, allow competitors to enter the market, and crush monopolies that exploit consumers.

Disadvantages

Price controls may be enacted with the best of intentions, but they often don't work. Most attempts to control prices often struggle to overcome the economic forces of supply and demand for any significant length of time. When prices are established by commerce in a free market, prices shift to maintain the balance between supply and demand. Government-imposed price controls can lead to the creation of excess demand in the case of price ceilings, or excess supply in the case of price floors.

Critics say that, as a result, price controls often lead to an imbalance between supply and demand. This can, in turn, lead to shortages and black markets. When prices are too low enough for things like housing, there may not be enough supply, thereby increasing demand. For instance, landlords may let the condition of their properties deteriorate because they aren't making enough to maintain them.

Price controls can lead to losses and a significant drop in quality. When prices are too low, there's a good chance that producer revenue drops. They may have to find a way to cut down on costs. Some may choose to cut down production or may end up putting more inferior products out on the market. As a result, R&D drops, while newer and more innovative products stop appearing on the market.

Pros
  • Protects consumers by eliminating price gouging

  • Helps producers remain competitive and profitable

  • Eliminates monopolies

Cons
  • Can lead to shortages and black markets

  • May create excess demand or excess supply

  • Often result in losses for producers and a drop in quality of products and services

Price Controls FAQs

What Is Meant by Price Control?

Price control is an economic policy imposed by governments that set minimums (floors) and maximums (ceilings) for the prices of goods and services in order to make them more affordable for consumers.

What Are Examples of Price Controls?

Some of the most common examples of price controls include rent control (where governments impose a maximum amount of rent that a property owner can charge and the limit by how much rent can be increased each year), prices on drugs (to make medication and health care more affordable), and minimum wages (the lowest possible wage a company can pay its employees).

What Are Price Controls in Economics?

Price controls in economics are restrictions imposed by governments to ensure that goods and services remain affordable. They are also used to create a fair market that is accessible by all. The point of price controls is to help curb inflation and to create balance in the market.

Are Price Controls Good or Bad?

Price controls can be both good and bad. They help make certain goods and services, such as food and housing, more affordable and within reach of consumers. They can also help corporations by eliminating monopolies and opening up the market to more competition. But it can also have a negative effect, as it may lead to shortages or an overabundance of supplies, black markets, and a decrease in the quality of goods and services available on the market.

The Bottom Line

Unlike the free market, where prices are dictated by supply and demand, price controls set minimum and maximum prices for goods and services. Governments and supporters of price controls say that these policies are necessary in order to make things more amenable for both consumers and suppliers. By enacting price control policies, consumers can afford essential goods and services and producers can remain profitable. But critics say it often has the opposite effect, leading to an imbalance in the market between supply and demand, and black markets.