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According to economic theory, the price mechanism in a free market will always allocate scarce resources efficiently for all goods and services. Evaluate the validity of this statement. [25]

This essay question was adapted from an actual H2 A level economics examination question

This economics essay evaluates whether the price mechanism in a market economy will always allocate scarce resources efficiently for all goods and services. This essay argues that, on the one hand, the price mechanism working in a free market economy will indeed allocate scarce resources efficiently, according to standard economic theory, because of the price mechanism can achieve productive and allocative efficiency. On the other hand, the allocation of scarce resources may not always be efficient, especially when there are market failures and resources are not allocated efficiently, leading to a situation of allocative inefficiency, which distort the workings of the free market.

First, we need to deal with the central problem of economics. Human wants are unlimited, while the earth's factors of production of land, labour, capital, and entrepreneurship are limited. Land refers to gifts of nature such as physical land, natural resources, and oil and gas, among other examples. Labour refers to human ingenuity, effort, time, and talent in the form of “human capital”. Capital in economics often refers to goods that are used to produce yet other goods. And entrepreneurship is the risk-taking, decision-making element that coordinates the other factors of production in an economy. This situation of limited factors of production that could potentially be allocated to different outputs, and the context of unlimited human wants, results in a situation of scarcity. It is important to note that economic scarcity necessitates choice, usually made between competing uses. 

Tutor’s Question: What economics diagram do you think should be drawn here? And how would this diagram back up your arguments?

The price mechanism, through the intersection of demand and supply, determines the optimal price and output and it is from the rational choices of millions of suppliers, producers, and firms meeting the requirements of millions of consumers, individuals, and households that eventually leads to the free market determining what to produce, how to produce, and for whom to produce. Demand is defined as the willingness and ability to purchase a good or service, ceteris paribus, while supply is defined as the willingness and ability to produce a good or service, also ceteris paribus. Oftentimes, one major assumption for this economic theory to work is the situation of perfect competition, where there are many buyers and sellers in a market, selling a homogeneous and non-differentiated good or service, and there are no (or very low) barriers to entry into the market.

Under the market price, consumers seek to maximise utility, and will therefore only consume if they are able to have a positive net benefit from the consumption of these goods and services. Those who are willing and able to pay will obtain the good and service. And the resources used to produce these goods and services will also be efficiently allocated, as producers maximise their profits. As a result, there is productive efficiency, since goods will be produced at the lowest cost combination to ensure profits are maximised, and price will be equal to marginal cost. On the whole, there is also allocative efficiency, since society’s welfare is maximised, and the Pareto efficient situation is reached, where we can only make some people better off by making others worse off in such an economic situation.

On the other hand, there are market failures in the real world, which may impede the efficient allocation of scarce resources. Market failure is the situation where the free market fails to allocate resources efficiently, and there is allocative inefficiency and deadweight loss to society. There are many types of market failure, such as the lack of provision of non-rival and non-excludable public goods, under-consumption of merit goods but over-consumption of demerit goods, externalities both positive and negative and also in consumption and production, imperfect competition leading to excessive market power in a market, imperfect information, factor immobility, and income and wealth inequality in a free market.

One major example is the under-consumption of merit goods. Because rational consumers seek to maximise their own welfare, they do not account for the positive externalities associated with the consumption of their good or service, which could be a merit good. There are many definitions of a merit good, but one definition is that a merit good is a good defined by society or the government to be beneficial to society, often because they bestow positive externalities on society when they are consumed. Externalities are defined as spillover effects to third parties not involved in the production or consumption of the good. Vaccinations provided by the National Health Service (NHS) are examples of merit goods, because they confer positive externalities on society, as when people who are vaccinated help by not infecting others and by making UK society healthier as a whole. However, an individual consumer only considers his marginal private benefit from getting vaccinated, and does not consider the positive externalities his vaccination confers on society – he would not take the positive externalities into account when making his economic decision. This decision results in an under-consumption of the merit good of vaccination, if the decision is left to the workings of the free market, and there is therefore dead-weight loss, as society’s welfare has yet to be maximised due to this under-consumption.

Tutor’s Question: What economics diagram do you think should be drawn here to support the merit good argument, which shows that markets do not always work efficiently?

Another example is the failure of the free market to produce public goods if there is no government intervention. A public good is one that is non-rival and non-excludable. Non-rival in consumption means that one person’s consumption of the good will not result in less of the good being available to others – or the consumption of the good does nothing to reduce the quality or quantity of the good for others, such as public lighting in the streets, where the amount of light cannot be “used up”. As a result, the marginal cost of the next user is theoretically zero, and if allocative efficiency means to produce where price equals to the marginal cost, and the marginal cost of producing the good is zero, then it follows that no private firm would produce the good only to  charge zero dollars (at the allocative efficiency level). And non-excludable means that non-payers cannot be excluded from consuming the good, for example national defence – it defends everyone in the country, including those who have not paid for it, such as foreigners or travellers, such as tourists. Therefore a rational firm would not produce this good because of the problem of free riders, where one who has not paid for the good has the ability to consume it. The government is the only decision-making body that has the willingness and ability to produce a public good, like street lighting and defence, as it has the mandate to do so for the welfare of its citizens (and therefore the willingness) and can raise the revenues to do so from compulsory taxes (and therefore the ability to do so).

In conclusion, while the price mechanism allocates scarce resources efficiently according to economic theory, this may not always be the case in reality, as there are market failures that challenge the assumptions upon which the efficiency of the price mechanism is predicated. Some government intervention is required in the free market to make it genuinely “free”, and to let the price mechanism work as it should. In the real world, with market failures such as the failure of the free market to produce public goods or the underconsumption of merit goods, or imperfect competition in the market, there is a strong need for government intervention in the free market to reduce or eliminate market failures so that the free market can go a long way to produce the optimal outcomes that the free market economists promise.

Economics Tutor's Comment - This is a top-quality, excellently-argued, and very strong economics essay which covers quite a few important points and arguments. The candidate's use of economic theory for market failure is quite strong in this economics essay and the anti-thesis arguments have been well-explained. Could more real-life examples have been used to demonstrate the arguments or the strength of the points? What else would make this economics essay even better than it is currently? Thank you for reading, and cheers! 

JC Economics Essays - This economics essays blog helps economics students with the A-Levels Economics examinations (Cambridge, A1/S, A2, H1/H2 A levels), and the international AS level economics examinations. IB students can also benefit from the economics materials and content in JC Economics Essays. This economics blog provides a range of useful and relevant economics essays, learning materials, study tips and techniques, and model economics essays that students in the United Kingdom, Malaysia, and Singapore, as well as worldwide, can use to excel in their studies and economics examinations.

This model economics essay was contributed by WT, our resident expert who helps students understand the beauty of Economics. She has wide-ranging academic interests in Econometrics, Economic History, International Trade, and Game Theory. And as always, SS, the editor of JC Economics Essays, edited this economics essay and also provided comments and pointers. Several editions and versions of this economics essay have been very popular, but do not accept them at face value and always think about how you would approach this economics question instead. Thank you for reading and cheers. 

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