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Explain with real world examples why markets might fail in the case of public goods and where information is imperfect. [10]


This paper explains, using real world examples, the market failures caused by public goods and imperfect information. Market failure refers to the situation where the free market fails to achieve the socially optimal outcome that maximises society’s welfare, and therefore fails to allocate resources efficiently. The market is said to be allocative inefficient. There are several sources of market failure, which include positive and negative externalities; the underconsumption of merit goods but overconsumption of demerit goods; the lack of production of public goods if they are left to the free market; market dominance, such as the existence of monopolies and oligopolies; the presence of imperfect and asymmetric information; and the immobility of the factors of production. Public goods and imperfect information would be the focus of this essay.

A public good refers to a good which is non-excludable and non-rival. Some common and popular examples of public goods include national defence and street lighting. "Non-excludable" means that it is impossible or impractical to prevent a person who has not paid from consuming the good. This implies that consumers would be unwilling to pay, as they are able to enjoy the benefits without paying, thus giving rise to “free riders”, resulting in firms lacking an incentive to produce the good and therefore a missing market. 

"Non-rival" means that the consumption of the good by a person does not diminish the quantity or quality of the good available to others. "Non-rival" implies that, once the good is produced, the Marginal Cost (MC) of allowing an additional person to consume the good is zero. Therefore, if the allocative efficient level of consumption is where Price (P) = MC, and MC = 0, then P = MC = 0 suggests that the good should be optimally provided for free, necessitating government provision. 

Hence, public goods are a form of market failure and government provision is required. Governments have the willingness and ability to produce public goods due to their non-profit nature, and unlike private firms, are able to raise compulsory taxes which citizens are compelled to pay, for the production of the public good. 

On the other hand, imperfect information refers to the situation where an agent lacks all relevant information with which to make a rational decision. 

Negative externalities refer to the adverse effects imposed on third parties arising from the production or consumption of a good. A demerit good is an undesirable good which the state believes will be over-consumed and over-produced if left to the workings of the free market. In the case of negative externalities and demerit goods, some consumers may be unaware or may underestimate the harm done to themselves and to others when certain goods are consumed or produced, and thus do not take into account the costs for themselves and on larger society. In other words, due to imperfect information, some individuals may be unable to factor in the full private costs of consumption – perceived Marginal Private Cost (MPC) is less than the actual MPC. This is shown in the above diagram, where the actual MPC, which is also the Marginal Social Cost (MSC), lies above the perceived MPC. The private outcome is Qp where perceived MPC = Marginal Private Benefit (MPB), whereas the social outcome is Qs where Marginal Social Benefit (MSB) = MSC. Between Qs and Qp, because MSC > MSB, the shaded area representing the negative welfare, the deadweight loss, can be eliminated if output were reduced from Qp to Qs. Since Qp > Qs, the good is overconsumed. Cigarettes are an example of a demerit good with negative externalities in consumption. Due to a possible lack of knowledge of the adverse effects arising from the consumption of cigarettes, smokers place themselves and nearby passive smokers at risk from suffering future health problems. 

THINK: What economics diagram should be drawn here, and what should the diagram show?

Positive externalities refer to the benefits enjoyed by third parties arising from the production or consumption of a good. A merit good is a desirable good which the state believes would be under-consumed or under-produced if left to the workings of the free market. In the case of positive externalities and merit goods, some consumers may be unaware or may underestimate the benefits enjoyed by themselves and to others when certain goods are consumed or produced, and thus do not take into account the benefits for themselves and on larger society. Training of workers are an example of a merit good with positive externalities in production as it generates a positive benefit for other firms when these workers work there. However, due to imperfect information, companies may be unwilling to send their own workers for upgrading, thus leading to the good being under-produced and therefore market failure.

In conclusion, the free market may experience market failure due to other sources besides public goods and imperfect information. Hence, the government could decide to intervene to establish allocative efficiency as part of their micro-economic goals.


JC Economics Essays - This A level economics essay response was contributed by Wilson YWS, and is one of the best essays that he has written. The response is clear, simple to understand, and shows that the student understands what the economics question demands. 

However, the major issue with it is that the real world examples could be better used to bring out and illustrate the various elements of the theories. 

Looking closely at this essay, how could the real world examples be better used to show that there really is market failure? Merely stating the examples or bringing them out piece-meal would not be a very constructive approach. However, overall, this essay is still a strong piece of work on balance but one that could be even better if it were improved. 

Thank you very much for reading, and cheers. 

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