PRICES WERE out of control at the end of third-century Rome, and the Emperor Diocletian was determined to rein them in. In AD 301 he issued his famous Edict on Prices, a complex piece of legislation that banned speculation and established price ceilings for a wide range of goods and services. But the ambitious law failed. Though violators could be punished with death, inflation and speculation persisted. Goods were hoarded, or sold on the black market. The economic crisis worsened. Eventually the law was abandoned. Like countless rulers before and since, Diocletian discovered the hard way that price controls don’t work. They worsen the problem they are intended to solve, leading to shortages, rationing, and even higher prices.
Yet the belief that government can control inflation by fiat never seems to lose its allure.