Knowing the difference helps us to know what can be done to solve this problem. Everyone who is concerned about what is going on around the world recognizes that there is a problem. Although these two words appear to be synonyms they are not. Economic insight into the difference between these two is very valuable.
Scarcity is the unavoidable condition in this world. We can never have all of our needs and wants satisfied. At the same time it is possible to address scarcity by directing means of production towards satisfying our highest needs and wants. Scarcity is alleviated by production.
A shortage has a different origin. A shortage is the outcome of intervention in the market. Somewhere prices in the market are being interfered with (manipulated). It is the signal that we call prices that is like words in a language. The words are necessary for communication. Without market prices the signals are muddled and the consequence is either a shortage or a surplus.
In a centrally-planned economy the prices are arbitrary and ‘controlled’ rather than market prices. As a result you have a complete breakdown of the economy like what happened in the Soviet Union where there may have been a national toothbrush shortage yet there was a handle surplus in Minsk and a bristle surplus in Pinsk with no means of coordinating. Intervention, price manipulation, is like speaking Russian to someone who understands only Spanish. In the vast complexity of the economy such miscommunication leads to tremendous errors. Everyone suffers when the market economy is rendered ineffective by intervention.
Now we can get to the crisis at hand. The economies around the world are functionally ‘controlled’ economies and so we have a mess on our hands.
The food shortage is caused by interventionism. When prices are set by the central planners and are set below what the market price would be there is less production. Also at that ‘below market price’ the demand for the commodity is greater. Excessive demand combined with constrained production leads to a shortage. The cause is clearly interventionism. The solution is not to then to heed the call for increased control by the central planners! The solution is to recognize that the interventionists are the problem in the first place.
The immediate solution is to stop all intervention in the market so that the language of the market can re-establish communication and coordination.
If there is truly scarcity then production will be channeled towards that end. Indirectly there may exist the appearance of scarcity of foodstuffs since grain supplies are being depleted to produce biofuels. This is not scarcity but a part of the shortage caused by intervention into the market economy by short-sighted and ignorant politicians and those whose privilege they seek. Their intervention, subsidizing ethanol production as an example, is obviously interfering with market prices.
As soon as this intervention stops the resources in the free market will quickly flow towards production to alleviate scarcity. And market prices will assure that there are no shortages or surpluses.
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