Free Markets And Mandatory Price Transparency

Josh Barro at National Review writes in favor of the idea that the law ought to require “hospitals and medical practices to disclose their full price lists—both the inflated list prices and the rates negotiated with each insurer that the practice accepts.”

To my way of thinking, this is a moderately good idea. I remarked on twitter, however, that it didn’t strike me as a particularly free markety idea. That’s fine by me. Sometimes heavy-handed regulation is what you need. But others seemed to push back and say that anything aiming at providing more information about prices is per se a pro-market intervention. I don’t think that’s correct. Opaque pricing is a pretty common feature of the economy. Cable companies, for example, will often offer pretty steep discounts to customers who threaten to cancel service. The marginal cost of providing cable to an additional household is very low, so it’s worth knuckling under to pressure. But obviously cable companies don’t want to disclose how low they’re willing to go, since if they did that would strengthen everyone’s else’s hand in bargaining. In general, full disclosure of how much you pay/charge your employees/clients/suppliers/customers would be pretty poor negotiating strategy in a wide variety of contexts so it doesn’t exist in a market equilibrium. Rules banning price secrecy across the board would, whether you like them or not, be a very drastic regulatory intervention into the marketplace.