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Markets and the Problem of Scarcity, A System of Markets for All Goods and Services

corned beef sandwiches, drive-in restaurants, Henry Ford, colas, scarce resources

How markets determine price is simple enough to understand for a single good or service in a single location. But consider what happens when there are markets for nearly all of the goods and services produced and consumed in an economy, across the entire country. In that context, this reasonably simple process of setting market prices allows an economic system as large and complex as the U.S. economy to operate with great efficiency and a high degree of freedom for consumers and producers.

Efficiency here means producing what consumers want to buy, at prices that are as low as they can be for producers to stay in business. And it turns out this efficiency is directly linked to the freedom that buyers and sellers have in a market economy. No central authority has to decide how many shirts or cars or sandwiches to produce each day, or where to produce them, or what price to charge for them. Instead, consumers spend their money for the products that give them the most satisfaction, and they try to find the best deal they can in terms of price, quality, convenience, assurances that defective products will be replaced or repaired, or other considerations.

What consumers are willing and able to buy tells producers what they should produce, if they hope to make a profit. Usually consumers have many options to choose from, because more than one producer offers the same or reasonably similar products (such as two or more kinds of cars, colas, and carpets). Producers then compete energetically for the dollars that consumers spend.

Competition among producers determines the best ways to produce a good or service. For example, in the early 1900s automobiles were made largely by hand, one at a time. But once Henry Ford discovered how to lower the cost of producing cars by using assembly lines, other car makers had to adopt the same production methods or be driven out of business (as many were).

Competition also determines what features and quality standards go into products. And competition holds down the costs of production because producers know that consumers compare their prices to the prices charged by other firms and for other products they might buy. In markets where a large number of producers compete, inefficient producers will be driven out of the market.

For example, at one time most towns and cities had independently owned cafes and drive-in restaurants that sold hamburgers, french fries, and soft drinks. Some of these businesses are still operating, but many closed down after larger fast-food chains began opening local franchises all around the nation, with well-known product standards and relatively low prices. The increased competition led to prices that were too low for many of the old cafes and drive-ins to make a profit. The private cafes that did survive were able to meet that level of efficiency, or they managed to make their products different enough from the national chains to keep their customers.

Prices for goods and services can only fall so far, however. Even the most efficient producers have to pay for the natural resources, labor, capital, and entrepreneurship they use to make and sell products. The market price cannot stay below the level of those costs for long without driving all of the producers out of this market. Therefore, if consumers want to buy some good or service not just today but also in the future, they have to pay a price at least high enough to cover the costs of producing it, including enough profit to make it worthwhile for sellers to stay in that market.

Once market prices for various goods and services are set, consumers are free to choose what to buy, and producers are free to choose what to produce and sell. They both follow their self-interest and do what makes them as well off as they can be. When all buyers and sellers do that in an economic system of competitive markets, the overall economy will also be very efficient and responsive to individual preferences.

This economic process is extremely decentralized. For example, it is likely that no one person or government agency knows how many corned beef sandwiches are sold in any large U.S. city on any given day. Individual sellers decide how many sandwiches they are likely to sell and arrange to have enough meat and bread available to meet the demand from their customers.

Consumers usually do not make up their mind about what to eat for lunch or dinner until they walk into the restaurant, grocery store, or sandwich shop. But they know they can go to several different places and choose many different things to eat and drink, while individual sellers know about how much they are likely to sell on an average business day.

Other businesses sell bread and meat and drinks to the restaurants and grocers, but they do not really know how many different sandwiches the different food stores are selling either. They only know how much bread and meat they need to have on hand to satisfy the orders they get from their customers.

Each buyer and seller knows his or her small part of the market very well and makes choices carefully to avoid wasting money and other resources. When everyone acts this carefully while facing competition from other consumers or producers, the overall system uses its scarce resources very efficiently. Efficiency implies two things here: taking into account the preferences and alternative choices that individual buyers and sellers face, and producing goods and services at the lowest possible cost.


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