Jan 14 2008
The other day when we introduced our unit on market failure, we began by revisiting the concept of free markets as mechanisms for allocating scarce resources efficiently. As I was reading blogs tonight, I stumbled upon this blog post by Michael Munger, professor of political economy at Duke University, where he shares an anecdote he uses when introducing the allocating power of markets through the price mechanism:
When I teach political economy, I start with the neoclassical theory of consumption, and then cover production. And I show students how miraculous is it that the actions of millions of people who have never met can be directed by prices. Resources move toward their highest valued use, and consumption goods are delivered to the consumers who want them.
For example, the United States promoted ethanol as an auto fuel. This sharply increased the price of corn worldwide. As Brazilian reporter Kieran Gartlan put it: “Higher prices are leading Brazilian farmers to plant more second crop corn this year, and the country’s modest corn exports are expected to expand [from 42 million tonnes to 48 million tonnes, an increase of 230 million bushels.]” (DTN, March 2, 2007, emphasis mine).
No one directed the Brazilian farmers to shift to corn production. The article puts it perfectly: “Higher prices are leading farmers….” The leadership comes from the prices themselves! The farmers may have had no idea why the price of corn had increased, to $4.00 per bushel. (After all, Brazil uses sugar, not corn, to produce its ethanol.) But Brazilian corn production increased within a year, by nearly 15%. No one made the farmers switch; they made choices. Other corn producers, in Argentina, Mexico, and several African countries, followed suit. No one talked about it, no one gave any orders; prices led them.
The reason I post this excerpt from professor Munger’s blog now is that it serves as a great response to a student who on the first day of our market failure class posited that perhaps the government could do a better job of deciding what goods and services and how much of them should be produced in an economy.
Yes, markets fail, and for many reasons: a concentration of power among a few large firms, an underallocation of resources towards goods that have spillover benefits, the over-provision of goods that have spillover costs, the failure of the market to provide public goods: these are examples of how market fail.
But when markets work, they really work! The efficiency of resource allocation that results from free, competitive, markets is unrivaled by any central planning agency. Munger’s example above is a simple illustration of this allocative power of markets and prices.
Powered by ScribeFire.