The surety of the law of unintended consequences proceeding from state legislation is as steadfast as the law of gravity. Emblematic of this axiom is the massive drop off (down 40-60%) in book sales in Israel this past year after the passage of a law intended to bolster book sales, protect small book sellers from “big chains” and of course guarantee a “living wage” to authors. To those ignorant of basic economics and human behavior the terms of this law might appear reasonable. It guaranteed authors 8% of the sales of the first 6,000 books sold and 10% of all books thereafter while simultaneously criminalizing the discounting of books during their first 18 months of sales. Supposedly this would help the underdogs: small booksellers and new authors. Ironically it does the exact opposite. It is the unknown author that has the greatest incentive to discount heavily in order to entice someone unfamiliar with their work. It is small book sellers that are most likely to haggle or “make a deal” when someone makes a substantial purchase.
Sadly Israel is not alone in this sort of book market meddling. Quite a number of other countries (mainly in Europe) have what are known as “fixed book price agreements” type laws. These are “resale price maintenance agreements”, commonly used in the US on a voluntary basis between vendor and customer, codified into law and backed by the state. In the US if company A wants Vendors B-Z to sell a widget for $1 and Vendor D sells it for less, then the solution is simple: company A just stops selling to vendor D. But in countries where such agreements are enforced by the state, vendor D can be fined or jailed. Let that sink in: jail time for selling goods “too low.” What monsters.
The usual defense of these laws is the same tired protectionist propaganda deployed whenever an entrenched business model is threatened by a new competitor: we need the state to protect us from “unfair” competition. “Unfair” being code for “somehow these people figured out how to sell the product I’m selling for a lot less and I can’t figure out what they are doing or I’m unwilling to change my business model to compete”. For example France has a “Lang Law” which permits book publishers to set the price of the book and then forbid anyone from selling it for less than 95% off the cover price. Fast forward to 2014 and a tweak was added to this law that was targeted at Amazon.com who was both discounting their books 5% and offering free shipping. Apparently selling books into the French market for the exact same price as French bookstores is considered “unfair” if the seller is a ‘foreign’ company.
So what we have here is a real world economics experiment, akin to raising the minimum wage to $50/hour. Israel has, in effect, dialed in the $50 option on book price fixing laws. While many countries have such economic interventionist type protectionism only Israel elevated theirs to stratospherically inane levels. From this we saw quick and clear signs of damage (just as we would if the minimum wage were raised to $50/hour). However, just as with the minimum wage laws, there still exist damaging effects in those countries with more “moderate” protectionist schemes such as France. It is perhaps apropos that a French economist (Bastiat, 19th century) speaks of the “unseen” damage wrought by market interventions.
If the demand for books is inelastic then to the extent book sellers earn more, the sellers of other goods earn less, while on net the public receives fewer goods for money spent. If the demand is elastic then book sellers earn less and other vendors earn more but the public still receives fewer goods. Indeed, the Israeli example demonstrated the elasticity of book demand. After their law went into affect, book sales went down and toy sales went up (as parents passed over high priced books for more affordable toys).
The fatal conceit of the politician is the belief that they can control nature (man) by dictate: people want they want and laws are like boulders in a stream – it may slow, but it will not stop the flow of water.