The Logic of Maximizing Behavior and Maximizing in the Marketplace

Read these sections revisit the concept of marginal costs and benefits within the context of the consumer's (and the firm's) maximizing behavior. The later pages in this section define two new concepts: consumer surplus and producer surplus. Take a moment to read through the stated learning outcomes, which should be your goals as you read through the chapter. Attempt the "Try It" problem for each section.

Maximizing in the Marketplace


  1. Explain what is meant by an efficient allocation of resources in an economy and describe the market conditions that must exist to achieve this goal.
  2. Define consumer and producer surplus.
  3. Discuss the relationship between efficiency and equity.

In perhaps the most influential book in economics ever written, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, Adam Smith argued that the pursuit of self-interest in a marketplace would promote the general interest. He said resources would be guided, as if by an "invisible hand," to their best uses. That invisible hand was the marketplace.

Smith's idea was radical for its time; he saw that the seemingly haphazard workings of the marketplace could promote the common good. In this section, we will use the tools we have developed thus far to see the power of Smith's invisible hand. Efforts by individuals to maximize their own net benefit can maximize net benefit for the economy as a whole.

When the net benefits of all economic activities are maximized, economists say the allocation of resources is efficient. This concept of efficiency is broader than the notion of efficient production that we encountered when discussing the production possibilities curve. There, we saw that the economy's factors of production would be efficient in production if they were allocated according to the principle of comparative advantage. That meant producing as much as possible with the factors of production available. The concept of an efficient allocation of resources incorporates production, as in that discussion, but it includes efficiency in the consumption of goods and services as well.