By Anushka Wijesinha
In my latest podcast, I talk about tea and hoppers; two of my favourite food items, and indeed of most Sri Lankans. But the government now dictates how much shops can charge me for these – and its a pretty fantastic, lower price than ever before – milk tea at Rs 25, plain tea at Rs. 10, and plain hoppers at Rs. 10. As a consumer, I should be pretty happy right? “Not if it’s causing unintended consequences!”, the economist inside me is saying.
In this article titled ‘The Problems of Price Controls‘, The Cato Institute – a prominent libertarian think tank in the US, asserts that,
“price controls reduce quality, create black markets, and stimulate costly rationing”.
We are seeing this play out right here in Sri Lanka. Last month, we saw one of the most intrusive and bizarre examples of administered prices (or price controls) being introduced by a government in recent times. This was on tea, and hoppers, served anywhere in the country, to be enforced by the Consumer Affairs Authority. What this has done is cause perverse incentives among those making and selling these items. Using poorer quality ingredients, shaving off quantity, skimping on the add-ons. Government-imposed fixed prices not only completely violates basic economic freedoms enjoyed by firms – like the freedom (and ability) to use price to signal quality or differentiation – but it is also notoriously difficult for a government to enforce fully and fairly. We must do more to make policymakers and bureaucrats understand that badly thought out public policies cause perverse incentives by economic agents, and this helps nobody. Listen to the podcast by clicking play below, or visit it on Soundcloud
Anushka Wijesinha is a development economist and a consultant to a host of governmental and non-governmental organizations in Sri Lanka. He has previously worked at Institute for Policy Studies, The World Bank and the presidential commision on taxation. His writings on economics are found on his blog -- The curionomist. You can follow him on Twitter @anushwij