Market Failure

The inefficient distribution of goods and services in the free market

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What is Market Failure?

Market failure refers to the inefficient distribution of goods and services in the free market. In a typical free market, the prices of goods and services are determined by the forces of supply and demand, and any change in one of the forces results in a price change and a corresponding change in the other force. The changes lead to a price equilibrium.

Market Failure - Image of the words market failure and related concepts written on a tablet's screen

Market failure occurs when there is a state of disequilibrium in the market due to market distortion. It takes place when the quantity of goods or services supplied is not equal to the quantity of goods or services demanded. Some of the distortions that may affect the free market may include monopoly power, price limits, minimum wage requirements, and government regulations.

Causes of Market Failures

Market failure may occur in the market for several reasons, including:

1. Externality

An externality refers to a cost or benefit resulting from a transaction that affects a third party that did not decide to be associated with the benefit or cost. It can be positive or negative. A positive externality provides a positive effect on the third party. For example, providing good public education mainly benefits the students, but the benefits of this public good will spill over to the whole society.

On the other hand, a negative externality is a negative effect resulting from the consumption of a product, and that results in a negative impact on a third party. For example, even though cigarette smoking is primarily harmful to a smoker, it also causes a negative health impact on people around the smoker.

2. Public goods

Public goods are goods that are consumed by a large number of the population, and their cost does not increase with the increase in the number of consumers. Public goods are both non-rivalrous as well as non-excludable. Non-rivalrous consumption means that the goods are allocated efficiently to the whole population if provided at zero cost, while non-excludable consumption means that the public goods cannot exclude non-payers from its consumption.

Public goods create market failures if a section of the population that consumes the goods fails to pay but continues using the good as actual payers. For example, police service is a public good that every citizen is entitled to enjoy, regardless of whether or not they pay taxes to the government.

3. Market control

Market control occurs when either the buyer or the seller possesses the power to determine the price of goods or services in a market. The power prevents the natural forces of demand and supply from setting the prices of goods in the market.

On the supply side, the sellers may control the prices of goods and services if there are only a few large sellers (oligopoly) or a single large seller (monopoly). The sellers may collude to set higher prices to maximize their returns. The sellers may also control the quantity of goods produced in the market and may collude to create scarcity and increase the prices of commodities.

On the demand side, the buyers possess the power to control the prices of goods if the market only comprises a single large buyer (monopsony) or a few large buyers (oligopsony). If there is only a single or a handful of large buyers, the buyers may exercise their dominance by colluding to set the price at which they are willing to buy the products from the producers. The practice prevents the market from equating the supply of goods and services to their demand.

4. Imperfect information in the market

Market failure may also result from the lack of appropriate information among the buyers or sellers. This means that the price of demand or supply does not reflect all the benefits or opportunity cost of a good. The lack of information on the buyer’s side may mean that the buyer may be willing to pay a higher or lower price for the product because they don’t know its actual benefits.

On the other hand, inadequate information on the seller’s side may mean that they may be willing to accept a higher or lower price for the product than the actual opportunity cost of producing it.

Market Control - Image of a man "keeping the growth in the economy"

Solutions to Market Failures

In order to eliminate market failures, several remedies can be implemented. They include:

1. Use of legislation

One of the ways that governments can manage market failures is by implementing legislation that changes behavior. For example, the government can ban cars from operating in city centers, or impose high penalties to businesses that sell alcohol to underage children, since the measures control unwanted behaviors.

2. Price mechanism

Price mechanisms are designed to change the behavior of both the consumers and producers. For products that cause harm to consumers, the government can discourage their consumption by increasing taxes. For example, taxes on cigarettes and alcohol are periodically increased to discourage their consumption and reduce their harmful effects on unrelated third parties.

Additional Resources

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