E. Belfort Bax, The Question of the Maximum, Justice, 24th April 1919, p.6.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (May 2007).
In watching the course of events I am more and more confirmed in my conviction that the only effective remedy for the economic disturbance which causes dear living is the strict enforcement of maximum prices. This interference with the laws of political economy, we all know, was viewed with horror by the laisser faire Manchester School. The aversion to the notion of a “maximum” still subsists, and is even to be found among some Socialists, especially those who have grown up in circles connected with retail trade. The “maximum” is said to be ineffective in its operation, to prove unenforceable, to have the effect of causing the commodities to which it is applied to disappear from the market, etc., etc.
Now these allegations, it most be admitted, are not without foundation as regards the practical application of the law of maximum as it has obtained hitherto. To really achieve its object, the “maximum” must be supported by sufficiently stringent sanctions rigidly enforced. This has never as yet been the case, except for a short period during the French Revolution, when the guillotine, or the fear of it, proved an effectual deterrent to the profiteer. Now I am not for a moment suggesting that the extreme measure of capital punishment is necessary for the effective carrying out of the law of maximum as against the forestaller and profiteer. But I do say that stringent search for forestalled commodities and, where discovered, the confiscation of the stock, combined with the fining of the owner or concealer of them to three or four times the value of the goods themselves, coupled with a term of imprisonment in extreme cases, would assuredly put an end to breaches of the maximum, and effectively prevent the disappearance from the market of the maximalised commodity.
Of course, a “maximum” is useless, or nearly so, when the contravention of it is not severely enough penalised – in other words, when its sanctions are insufficient. I say “or nearly so,” inasmuch as even under the very loose administration of it obtaining in some countries – e.g., in France to-day – it has on occasion done useful work where an energetic man has put his shoulder to the wheel to enforce it. Only the other day the mayor of a small French town in my neighbourhood caused a stock of goods which had been held up to be seized, confiscated, and sold at the “maximum” in the open market.
As things are it is easy enough for two or three producers, or still more a syndicate of producers, where such exists, to coerce the local administration by the threat of “closing down” in the event of its not consenting to a rise in price. This has happened in the town where I live several times in the last year or two. So long as this can be done a law of maximum is for practical purposes illusory. The answer to it is obvious. (1) Let the administration announce its intention, in the event of the proprietors refusing to continue production, of taking over the works itself and carrying on the industry under its own auspices. The Commune of Paris in 1871, I believe, issued a ukase to this effect, but I am not sure whether it was acted upon. (2) To the really effective working of the “maximum” under present conditions a system of licences for the producer and distributor (at least of the necessaries of life) analogous to the existing liquor licence, would seem to be almost indispensable as far as regards the retail dealer and those industries which the administration is not prepared to take over immediately. The threat of the suspension or cancellation of the licence would be a useful instrument in the handle of the public authority to hold in terrorem over the recalcitrant tradesman or small employer who thought to bluff the public and the administration into allowing him to fleece the consumer at his will.
The fact is the principle of the law of maximum has, as I have already said, never had a fair trial. Nevertheless, the ineffective form in which it has obtained during the war up till the present time has undoubtedly done some good. The French Chamber has recently passed a law for increasing the severity of the penalties against violations of the “maximum” and inflations of price, and severely penalising the forestaller (accapareur) and the profiteer of price-raising generally. This law, unfortunately, as has been recently pointed out, is likely to be rendered inoperative owing to the success of the friends of the forestallers and priceraisers in retaining for their clients benefit of the plea of “extenuating circumstances,” and also of the law of “sursis,” by which the convicted person can be absolved from serving the sentence passed upon him until he has committed the same offence again. For this reason it is to be feared that the recent measure will largely fail of its object.
The whole secret of the success of a law of “maximum” rests on the penalties for its infraction being sufficiently deterrent, and so more in their strict and impartial enforcement.
Last updated on 28.5.2007