(detail from Valle Romita Polyptych by Gentile da Fabriano (c. 1400))
This Essay investigates the history of “just price” and its influence on the concept and practice of public utility regulation in the United States. It begins with a discussion of the Scholastic understanding of just price and its relationship to commutative justice, with particular attention to the problem of coercion in economic exchange. The Essay then discusses the centrality of just price to broader ideas of moral economy and to economic thought and regulation in colonial America and the early United States. The heart of the Essay shows how the idea of just price influenced public utility regulation as it took shape during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As the Essay demonstrates, received understandings of just price were fundamental to the public utility idea and were at the heart of battles over the proper approach to utility valuation and rate regulation during the first half of the twentieth century. The Essay concludes with a discussion of efforts to restructure formerly regulated industries during the last quarter of the twentieth century, with particular attention to the challenges faced by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as it seeks to ensure that prices in restructured natural gas and electricity markets are just and reasonable. Although much of the Essay’s purpose is descriptive, several larger points emerge from this study. First, the history of just price reveals that relations of reciprocity and fairness in exchange are at the very core of the public utility idea. When seen from this perspective, public utility represents an important experiment in translating abstract principles of economic justice and fair pricing into working rules for governing key systems of provisioning in a modern industrial society. Second, the history of just price reminds us that prices are more than signals; that they are also relationships and that price relationships can be coercive. At root, the economics of just price is an economics of coercion and, as such, an economics that resonates quite strongly with efforts by Progressive lawyers, legal realists, and institutional economists to develop an approach to law and economics (and economic regulation) that would put coercion at its center. Third, the history of just price shows that competitive markets, when functioning properly, can be powerful instruments for protecting consumers and facilitating fairness in exchange. But it also underscores the importance of taking individual markets on their own terms and recognizing that some markets, and the mechanisms of price formation at their center, are more vulnerable to disruption and manipulation than standard economic models suggest. Finally, at the most general level, the history of just price reminds us that for a very long time—far longer than the lifespan of classical and neoclassical economics—ethical and social concerns have been intimately bound up with conceptions of economy, economic life, and the provision of necessities.