Defining Economics

Read this section to encounter the three fundamental questions that economists face and to learn about opportunity costs. Attempt the problems presented in the "Try It" section, and note how eventually every decision boils down to choosing between competing alternatives.

Scarcity, Choice, and Cost

Scarcity and the Fundamental Economic Questions

The choices we confront as a result of scarcity raise three sets of issues. Every economy must answer the following questions:

  1. What should be produced? Using the economy's scarce resources to produce one thing requires giving up another. Producing better education, for example, may require cutting back on other services, such as health care. A decision to preserve a wilderness area requires giving up other uses of the land. Every society must decide what it will produce with its scarce resources.
  2. How should goods and services be produced? There are all sorts of choices to be made in determining how goods and services should be produced. Should a firm employ a few skilled or a lot of unskilled workers? Should it produce in its own country or should it use foreign plants? Should manufacturing firms use new or recycled raw materials to make their products?
  3. For whom should goods and services be produced? If a good or service is produced, a decision must be made about who will get it. A decision to have one person or group receive a good or service usually means it will not be available to someone else. For example, representatives of the poorest nations on earth often complain that energy consumption per person in the United States is many times greater than energy consumption per person in the world's scores of poorest countries. Critics argue that the world's energy should be more evenly allocated. Should it? That is a "for whom" question.

Every economy must determine what should be produced, how it should be produced, and for whom it should be produced. We shall return to these questions again and again.