Without capitalism, we

Thursday, March 20, 2003 at 1:00am

We've all seen gasoline prices rising. Is that good news or bad news? Congress could enact price controls and "odd and even" days for gasoline purchases like they did in the 1970s.

Sure we'd be paying lower prices, but the selling price of a good is just one element of its cost. The full cost of a good includes all additional resources expended for its acquisition. These additional resources might include time and travel that are by no means free.

Say that Congress legislates gasoline price controls that set a maximum price of $1 a gallon. As sure as night follows day, there'd be long lines and gasoline shortages, just as there were in the 1970s. For the average consumer, a $1.60 a gallon selling price and no waiting lines is a darn sight cheaper than a controlled $1 a gallon price plus searching for a gasoline station that has gas and then waiting in line. If your average purchase is 10 gallons, and if an hour or so of your time is worth more than $6, the $1.60-a-gallon free-market price is cheaper.

Prices aren't just made up. Prices are important market signals reflecting the relative scarcity conditions of any good. Rising prices imply an increase in the scarcity, or expected scarcity, of a good. In other words, if a good becomes scarcer or is expected to become scarcer, its price will rise. The opposite is true when a good becomes abundant or is expected to become abundant.

When a good becomes scarce, there are several socially optimal responses: Consumers should economize on its usage and search for cheaper substitutes. Producers should increase production of the good and search for substitutes. Rising prices provide both consumers and producers with incentives to behave in socially optimal ways. Plus, they do so voluntarily.

Another player in this economizing process are futures markets such as the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX). One function of a futures market is to allocate goods over time. Let's look at a simplified example of this process. People can buy or sell orders today for future deliveries of oil

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