Market Failure

Read this section for a more detailed look at the topic of market failure. Attempt the "Try It” problem before checking your answer.

Public Goods

Public Goods and the Government

Because many individuals who benefit from public goods will not pay for them, private firms will produce a smaller quantity of public goods than is efficient, if they produce them at all. In such cases, it may be desirable for government agencies to step in. Government can supply a greater quantity of the good by direct provision, by purchasing the public good from a private agency, or by subsidizing consumption. In any case, the cost is financed through taxation and thus avoids the free-rider problem.

Most public goods are provided directly by government agencies. Governments produce national defense and law enforcement, for example. Private firms under contract with government agencies produce some public goods. Park maintenance and fire services are public goods that are sometimes produced by private firms. In other cases, the government promotes the private consumption or production of public goods by subsidizing them. Private charitable contributions often support activities that are public goods; federal and state governments subsidize these by allowing taxpayers to reduce their tax payments by a fraction of the amount they contribute.

While the market will produce some level of public goods in the absence of government intervention, we do not expect that it will produce the quantity that maximizes net benefit. Figure 6.10 "Public Goods and Market Failure" illustrates the problem. Suppose that provision of a public good such as national defense is left entirely to private firms. It is likely that some defense services would be produced; suppose that equals Q1 units per period. This level of national defense might be achieved through individual contributions. But it is very unlikely that contributions would achieve the correct level of defense services. The efficient quantity occurs where the demand, or marginal benefit, curve intersects the marginal cost curve, at Q*. The deadweight loss is the shaded area ABC; we can think of this as the net benefit of government intervention to increase the production of national defense from Q1 up to the efficient quantity, Q*.

Figure 6.10 Public Goods and Market Failure

Figure 6.10

Because free riders will prevent firms from being able to require consumers to pay for the benefits received from consuming a public good, output will be less than the efficient level. In the case shown here, private donations achieved a level of the public good of Q1 per period. The efficient level is Q*. The deadweight loss is shown by the triangle ABC.