How Rebates for Energy-Efficient Appliances Destroy Wealth
In the free market, supply and demand intersect at the point of equilibrium. At this point, the amount that individuals pay for an appliance equals its value. If more individuals were willing to buy an energy-efficient appliance but the suppliers were producing at full capacity, then the price would increase. For some individuals, the higher price will exceed the amount that they value the appliance, and they will not buy one. Additionally, the higher price will incite more firms to enter the market and manufacture energy-efficient appliances, which will push the price back to its equilibrium level.
By offering a rebate, the government distorts the market for energy-efficient appliances, resulting in a loss to the economy. I made the following graph to demonstrate how this happens. (Please keep in mind that I was an economics major, not an art major!) The critical error that many make when evaluating this policy is ignoring this loss.
Graph of Supply and Demand for Energy-Efficient Appliances
Let’s assume that the price of an energy-efficient appliance is $500. At this price, a certain number of people will buy one. For the sake of this example, lets assume that 1,000 individuals will buy one appliance at $500. Next, the government provides a rebate of $175 to incite additional people to buy them. At this lower price, a greater number of people will buy one.
Let’s say that 1,200 people are willing to buy them at this price. Now, these individuals consume a product that the economy-wide equilibrium values at $500, but which the individual values at $325. This means that there is a cost to the economy of $175 (the amount of the rebate) for each appliance sold under the new program. This number, multiplied by the number of additional of appliances sold, roughly equals the dead-weight loss to the economy. In this example, the dead-weight loss equals $175 * 200 = $35,000. In this simplified example, this represents the goods and services that would have been bought in the absence of the rebate, which constitutes destroyed wealth.
Another factor that contributes to the economic loss is the amount of the old appliances that are destroyed despite still being operable. This, too, is represented in the graph.
What’s more, this distortion does not increase the number of energy-efficient appliances sold in the long run. This is because the rebate incites transactions that would have occurred anyway in the future. As old appliances break down, individuals will replace them with new appliances that use improved technology.
Ultimately, the rebate program will destroy wealth and fail to hold down energy prices in the long term. Missourians would be better off if the state and federal governments considered the long-term negative consequences of this policy and let the price system work its magic without this kind of short-sighted intervention.