And, of course, once a government begins to control prices and ration scarce goods, it’s hard to stop. It didn’t take Beijing planners long to recognise that the price controls were hurting their own oil companies but, instead of allowing them to charge what the market would bear for the products, they tried to compensate the companies for the losses. And, so, the lunacy of the controls compounded itself.
“The government forces state‐owned or state‐controlled firms to absorb losses that analysts say are now running at up to US$10 a barrel on imported crude,” John Ruwitch wrote recently in the International Herald Tribune, so “for the past two years, [Beijing] also doled out hefty year‐end compensation to Sinopec, the worst hit”.
Sinopec controls about 80 per cent of the Chinese market for refined petroleum products, and the China Daily reports that, last year, the bailouts cost the government more than US$1.2 billion. So, Beijing essentially forced consumers to pay for the inconvenience of queueing. The Chinese government knows how much it paid out to aid ailing firms, but it will never really know how much harm it dealt the overall economy. In May last year, Beijing allowed petrol prices to rise 10.6 per cent, and diesel prices to go up 12.3 per cent. No doubt, governing bodies made those decisions on the basis of some economic analysis but, as anyone familiar with the laws of economics has to wonder, what did these economists know about demand that the consumers themselves didn’t?
Often, spiking prices aren’t pleasant, but they’re not the end of the world, either. As my colleagues at the Cato Institute, Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren, point out, in the last week of September 2003, oil was selling in US spot markets for US$23.86 a barrel. Five years later, prices are four times higher, but the inflation, unemployment and recession that supposedly follow oil price shocks are nowhere to be seen.
The Communist Party has staked its legitimacy on the ability to continue delivering economic growth at what, by historical standards, is a blistering pace. Party officials seeking to ameliorate popular discontent no doubt want to shield ordinary people from spiking prices but, like them or not, market prices are a reality.
Allowing prices to rise and fall, as they will in the market, can actually relieve pressure on governments. Scarce goods are scarce goods, and even an all‐powerful party can’t control everything. By recognising certain adversities as facts of life, a government can absolve itself of the onus of having to put an end to them. After all, putting an end to them sometimes creates bigger adversities elsewhere.