More on government intervention

Continuing on the theme from last week of government intervention, the following is an extract from my book The Sugar Casino, published in 2015:

In a freely functioning market supply and demand is, in theory at least, matched by price. If demand increases or supply falls, prices rise to encourage supply while at the same time reducing demand. If supply increases or demand drops then prices fall, sending a signal to producers to reduce output or to consumers to increase demand.

This process is what is often described as the “invisible hand”, the unobservable market force that helps the demand and supply of goods in a free market to reach equilibrium automatically. Adam Smith introduced the phrase in 1759 in reference to income distribution and then used it again in “The Wealth of Nations” in 1776. He argued that an economy works best in a free market scenario where everyone works for his or her own interest – and where the government leaves people to buy and sell freely among themselves.

The American baseball player Yogi Berra once said, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is”.

In practice, markets may not always be efficient, and governments may need to interfere to correct those inefficiencies. This might happen if producers club together into a cartel to raise prices, requiring the government to intervene to break up the cartel. But even without a cartel a sugar mill might be so big in a particularly region that it could in its own right be a monopoly employer or buyer of cane, forcing down wages and cane prices, or a monopoly seller, forcing sugar prices higher.

In addition, sugar producers might not correctly price what economists call “collective goods”: these could be the environmental costs of factory pollution or heavy traffic on the roads at harvest time. Individual producers might not also correctly value the benefits of research into new cane varieties or of infrastructure investment such as railways or ports. On a wider scale governments, rather than markets, may better provide collective goods such as education and health services.

Inefficiencies sometimes creep into markets due to a lack of information. To counter that a government could encourage the setting up of commodity exchanges to facilitate trade and improve price transparency.

But governments also interfere in markets, not to correct market inefficiencies, but to obtain specific policy objectives such as the alleviation of poverty or a fairer distribution of wealth. Interfering in the market in this way can however have a cost: it can create price distortions that prevent the most productive and efficient allocation of resources. This “economic loss” has to be measured against the “social gain”, say, of a more equal income distribution.

Governments may also interfere in markets for diplomatic reasons, for example by applying a lower import tariff on sugar from one country compared to sugar from another. Lower import tariffs might be applied to curry favour from a neighbour or in exchange for lower tariffs on other goods within the framework of a Free Trade Area (FTA). Altruistic governments may also reduce or remove import tariffs on sugar imports as part of a policy to promote growth in developing countries.  Such an example would be the EU’s “Everything But Arms” agreements.

In the agricultural markets some governments, in particular China, may try to keep cane prices high in order to maintain rural incomes and to slow down the migration of the population to the cities. Other governments (or more correctly politicians) may try to keep cane prices high for less altruistic reasons: to win political votes. India is an obvious example of this; perhaps Thailand is a less obvious example.

Governments may also often interfere in markets to maintain employment. It would certainly be more cost efficient, say, for Bangladesh to close down their few remaining sugar mills and import the sugar they need from Brazil or Thailand. (The same also applies, but on a much larger scale, to China.) However, closing factories can result in a politically unacceptable increase in unemployment. Sugar industry employees in Bangladesh and China might be better off making something else other than sugar, but a reallocation of that sort takes time. It would involve short-term hardship for the employees concerned and would be a difficult “political sell” in the short term. And everyone knows that politicians operate in the short term: their time frame is the next election.

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