Commentary

There is no such thing as good price controls and a bad ones

The government hit covid tests with price control. Now it takes 30 days to get two negative tests and escape quarantine.

There has been heavy criticism of the government that the covid tests bought on public money are now expensively sold back to the public. Their prices may have hovered around 70-90 euros at various state and private providers, but that is a fortune for anyone who makes a Hungarian salary.

So Orbán did what his authoritarian instincts dictated. After clamping down on borders (so less f*ckers would travel and need tests) he introduced price control on the tests.

The result was very predictable: an even more severe shortage. Some providers simply stopped offering tests, while the state didn’t suddenly grow extra testing capacity. They were struggling to keep up with demand even before the private sector shortage hit.

It now takes 30 days to get the two negative tests and their results and escape a quarantine. Testing makes no sense in health care scenarios either, as people caught up in contact tracing can be ordered to stay at home without tests. Doctors can even announce someone corona-positive based on their symptoms (much like the flu) and without a test, making testing even more pointless.

Authoritarian instinct on both left and right make people applaud authoritarian moves with a covid excuse. Some even defend border shutdown, even though the virus is clearly everywhere, and price controls on the tests, because that’s what central planning instincts tell us is the solution. But it isn’t a solution, it just plays whack-a-mole with symptoms of a problem. But that never discourages the fans of price control. If it doesn’t work – and it never does – it’s never the price control’s fault in their mind.

Some regard price controls as necessary to correct what they don’t like. But when it is used against them, or when it is used against their interest, it will suddenly feel unfair. Like when we were hit with a huge price increase on taxi rides because the government introduced price control, way above the market price. Or when they introduced price control on utility bills (to win the 2014 elections) and we still pay the same, high prices even though the market price of energy tanked in the meantime.

The same stands for border control, decrees and surveillance. The Berlin Wall is considered bad, but limiting movement and destroying industries with virus excuse is somehow OK? No such thing. Only a wise and well-meaning overlord would be able to conduct surveillance and issue decrees in the way you like, but there is no such thing as wise and well-meaning overlords in politics.

As a rule, if we have to depend on a decision maker to be an angel not to abuse the tool we gave him, that tool shouldn’t exist in the first place. We can’t vote angels in, no matter how hard we try, because there are no angels in politics – and even if there are, they won’t stay angels for long.

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