Last week, for the Nth time, the Wall Street Journal had a story about shortages of Covid-19 tests ( “Covid-19 Testing Is Hampered by Shortages of Critical Ingredient,” September 25). An important topic. The journalist notes:

According to a survey last month by the American Association for Clinical Chemistry, which represents commercial, hospital and public-health laboratories, 67% of labs are having issues getting both reagents and test kits—the highest level since the group started querying labs in May.

Shortages of test kits have persisted for seven months. And there is apparently no explanation in sight. The president of the Riverside Health System in Virginia, Dr. Michael Dicey, echoes the general puzzlement:

This is a big country, and we still haven’t been able to settle the testing issue. It doesn’t make any sense.

In fact, it makes a lot of sense for anybody who knows something about economics—and does not push it under the rug for ideological reasons. During these seven months, prices of most goods produced in America have been under the legal threat of states’ “price gouging” laws and of the federal Defense Production Act. The latter does not formally control the prices of testing supplies, but the federal government has been doing it indirectly through the FDA, the CDC, and a few commissars who control the allocation of many Covid-19 related products. Among them are Peter Navarro, the so-called “equipment czar” (“‘This Is War’: President’s Equipment Czar to Use Full Powers to Fight Coronavirus,” Wall Street Journal, March 28, 2020), Admiral Brett Giroir, the “testing czar” (“Trump’s Covid-19 Testing Czar Claims Administration Is Doing ‘Everything That We Can Do’ to Increase Testing Capacity,” CNN, August 14, 2020), and Moncef Slaoui, the “vaccine czar” (“Trump Vaccine Czar Will Not Be Required to Disclose Pharma Ties, IG Rules,” The Hill, July 17, 2020).

The Soviet Union was also a big country and they too were unable to settle similar issues, such as shortage of automobiles, pharmaceutical products, or bread. It took between 8 and 12 years for an ordinary citizen to take delivery of a car after he ordered it. Shortages also hit pharmaceutical products; a New York Times story of 1977 (“Soviet Medicine Mixes Inconsistency with Diversity”) gives many examples. Another New York Times story, published a few years later, focussed on food shortages (“Soviet Food Shortages: Grumbling and Excuses,” January 15, 1982; OCR errors corrected):

The situation in late summer looked so bleak that the Kremlin began a nationwide campaign for the conservation of bread, and there are many cities and towns where bread purchases are restricted. …

In Moscow there is de facto rationing, limits set by store managers on the quantities that shoppers can buy. …

For years, top Soviet officials have attributed the nation’s poor agricultural performance to bad weather, and the leadership’s official New Year greeting to the people this year again stressed the climatic blight.

Legion of examples are available.

Strangely—for those who ignore standard price theory—shortages persisted until the whole system crashed. It was not because of a lack of commissars. Could the situation, by any chance, have something to do with the substitution of government allocation for free-market prices? And is it possible that what does not work in the United States right now is also, on a lower scale, the consequence of government interference in prices and allocation? Economic theory and observations strongly point to a positive answer.

The efficiency of decentralized markets and free prices in the allocation of resources was first clearly demonstrated by Adam Smith in his 1776 classic The Wealth of Nations. The invisible hand of voluntary cooperation works better than the visible fist of the state. (The featured image of this post shows Smith’s statue in Edinburgh.)

The well-known story reported by Philip Coggan in his recent book More (which I review in the current issue of Regulation) illustrates the incapacity of the collectivist mind to understand or to acknowledge that decentralized and free markets are more efficient than government price controls and allocation:

In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s break-up, the economist Paul Seabright was contacted by a Russian official who was keen to learn about the workings of the markets. “Tell me, for example,” he asked “Who is in charge of the supply of bread to the population of London?”