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Correcting Market Failures, Adjusting for External Costs or Benefits

external benefits, market failures, contagious diseases, external costs, equality of opportunity

There are some private markets in which goods and services are produced, but too much or too little is produced. Whether too much or too little is produced depends on whether the problem is one of external costs or external benefits. In either case, the government can try to correct these market failures, to get the right amount of the good or service produced.

External costs occur when not all of the costs involved in the production or consumption of a product are paid by the producers and consumers of that product. Instead, some of the costs shift to others. One example is drunken driving. The consumption of too much alcohol can result in traffic accidents that hurt or kill people who are neither producers nor consumers of alcoholic products. Another example is pollution. If a factory dumps some of its wastes in a river, then people and businesses downstream will have to pay to clean up the water or they may become ill from using the water.

When people other than producers and consumers pay some of the costs of producing or consuming a product, those external costs have no effect on the product’s market price or production level. As a result, too much of the product is produced considering the overall social costs. To correct this situation, the government may tax or fine the producers or consumers of such products to force them to cover these external costs. If that can be done correctly, less of the product will be produced and consumed.

An external benefit occurs when people other than producers and consumers enjoy some of the benefits of the production and consumption of the product. One example of this situation is vaccinations against contagious diseases. The company that sells the vaccine and the individuals who receive the vaccine are better off, but so are other people who are less likely to be infected by those who have received the vaccine. Many people also argue that education provides external benefits to the nation as a whole, in the form of lower unemployment, poverty, and crime rates, and by providing more equality of opportunity to all families.

When people other than the producers and consumers receive some of the benefits of producing or consuming a product, those external benefits are not reflected in the market price and production cost of the product. Because producers do not receive higher sales or profits based on these external benefits, their production and price levels will be too low–based only on those who buy and consume their product. To correct this, the government may subsidize producers or consumers of these products and thus encourage more production.



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