Bioethics Blogs

Unpacking The Meaning Of ‘Rationing’: A Response To Dowd And Allison

Bryan Dowd and Kirk Allison are to be thanked for their lengthy treatise on the word “rationing.” It is a term whose interpretation economists have left to politicians — not invariably models of erudition. Check the subject index of introductory textbooks or even intermediary textbooks in economics and rarely will you see there the term “rationing.”

Part of the lack of clarity on the term can be laid at the doorsteps of the profession that claims to know all about resource allocation but rarely ever takes up the subject of rationing in its teaching. Sadly, modern textbooks in economics are, by and large, just copies of one another — worse than me too drugs in which at least one molecule is changed. At some point, someone forgot to cover the term, so all other texts followed.

But another reason for the lack of clarity on the term reflects the fact that even economists cannot seem to agree on its meaning. Consider, for example, the following excerpts from well-known economics textbooks that do touch upon the subject, however briefly:

“If bread were free, a huge quantity of it would be demanded. Because the resources used to produce bread are scarce, the actual amount of bread has to be rationed among its potential users. Not everyone can have all the bread that they could possibly want. The bread must be rationed somehow; and the price system accomplishes this in the following way: Everyone who is willing to pay the equilibrium price gets the good, and everyone who is not, does not.”

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.