Strategic interaction between public and private actors is increasingly recognised as an important determinant of agricultural market performance in Africa and elsewhere. Trust and consultation tends to positively affect private activity while uncertainty of government behaviour impedes it. This paper reports on a laboratory experiment based on a stylised model of the Zambian maize market. The experiment facilitates a comparison between discretionary interventionism and a rules-based policy in which the government pre-commits itself to a future course of action. A simple precommitment rule can, in theory, overcome the prevailing strategic dilemma by encouraging private sector participation. Although this result is also borne out in the economic experiment, the improvement in private sector activity is surprisingly small and not statistically significant due to irrationally cautious choices by experimental governments. Encouragingly, a rules-based policy promotes a much more stable market outcome thereby substantially reducing the risk of severe food shortages. These results underscore the importance of predictable and transparent rules for the state s involvement in agricultural markets.