Economic systems - Business Environment

The concept of economic scarcity

Like ‘politics’, the term ‘economic’ tends to be used in a variety of ways and contexts to describe certain aspects of human behaviour, ranging from activities such as producing, distributing and consuming, to the idea of frugality in the use of a resource (e.g. being ‘economical’ with the truth). Modern definitions stress how such behaviour, and the institutions in which it takes place (e.g. households, firms, governments, banks), are concerned with the satisfaction of human needs and wants through the transformation of resources into goods and services which are consumed by society. These processes are said to take place under conditions of ‘economic scarcity’.
Economic scarcity is the concept that there is only so much of anything. There is only so much real estate in a city, and some parts are better than others. There are a finite number of miles of beach front. There is only so much food grown. There is no free lunch. It is economic scarcity that gives rise to society's attempts to assign value to whatever is limited. It is closely associated the principle of artisanship, which determines that my doodle is worthless, while Monet's Water Lilies is extraordinarily valuable.The economist’s idea of ‘scarcity’ centres around the relationship between a society’s needs and wants and the resources available to satisfy them. In essence, economists argue that whereas needs and wants tend to be unlimited, the resources which can be used to meet those needs and wants are finite and accordingly no society at any time has the capacity to provide for all its actual or potential requirements. The assumption here is that both individual and collective needs and wants consistently outstrip the means available to satisfy them, as exemplified, for instance, by the inability of governments to provide instant health care, the best roads, education, defence, railways, and so on, at a time and place and of a quality convenient to the user. This being the case, ‘choices’ have to be made by both individuals and society concerning priorities in the use of resources, and every choice inevitably involves a ‘sacrifice’ (i.e. forgoing an alternative).Economists describe this sacrifice as the ‘opportunity cost’ or ‘real cost’ of the decision that is taken (e.g. every pound spent on the health service is a pound not spent on some other public service) and it is one which is faced by individuals, organisations (including firms), governments and society alike.

From a societal point of view the existence of economic scarcity poses three serious problems concerning the use of resources:

  1. What to use the available resources for? That is, what goods and services should be produced (or not produced) with the resources (sometimes described as the ‘guns v. butter’ argument)?
  2. How best to use those resources? For example, in what combinations, using what techniques and what methods?
  3. How best to distribute the goods and services produced with them? That is, whogets what, how much and on what basis?

In practice, of course, these problems tend to be solved in a variety of ways, including barter (voluntary, bilateral exchange), price signals and the market, queuing and rationing, government instruction and corruption (e.g. resources allocated in exchange for personal favours), and examples of each of these solutions can be found in most, if not all, societies, at all times. Normally, however, one or other main approach to resource allocation tends to predominate and this allows analytical distinctions to be made between different types of economic system. One important distinction is between those economies which are centrally planned and those which operate predominantly through market forces, with prices forming the integrating mechanism. Understanding this distinction is fundamental to an examination of the way in which business is conducted and represents the foundation on which much of the subsequent analysis is built.

The centrally planned economy
In this type of economic system associated with the post-Second World War socialist economies of eastern Europe, China, Cuba and elsewhere most of the key decisions on production are taken by a central planning authority, normally the state and its agencies. Under this arrangement, the state typically:

  • owns and/or controls the main economic resources;
  • establishes priorities in the use of those resources;
  • sets output targets for businesses which are largely under state ownership and/or control;
  • directs resources in an effort to achieve these predetermined targets; and
  • seeks to co-ordinate production in such a way as to ensure consistency between output and input demands.
  • The fact that an economy is centrally planned does not necessarily imply that all economic decisions are taken at central level; in many cases decision making may be devolved to subordinate agencies, including local committees and enterprises. Ultimately, however, these agencies are responsible to the center and it is the latter which retains overall control of the economy and directs the use of scarce productive resources.

    The problem of co-ordinating inputs and output in a modern planned economy is, of course, a daunting task and one which invariably involves an array of state planners and a central plan or blueprint normally covering a number of years (e.g. a five-year plan). Under such a plan, the state planners would establish annual output targets for each sector of the economy and for each enterprise within the sector and would identify the inputs of materials, labour and capital needed to achieve the set targets and would allocate resources accordingly. Given that the outputs of some industries (e.g. agricultural machinery) are the inputs of others (e.g. collective farms), it is not difficult to see how the overall effectiveness of the plan would depend in part on a high degree of co-operation and co-ordination between sectors and enterprises, as well as on good judgement, good decisions and a considerable element of good luck. The available evidence from planned economies suggests that none of these can be taken for granted and each is often in short supply.

    Even in the most centralized of economies, state planning does not normally extend to telling individuals what they must buy in shops or how to use their labour, although an element of state direction at times may exist (e.g. conscription of the armed forces). Instead, it tends to condition whatis available for purchase and the pricesat which exchange takes place, and both of these are essentially the outcome of political choices, rather than a reflection of consumer demands. All too often consumers tend to be faced by queues and ‘black markets’ for some consumer products and overproduction of others, as state enterprises strive to meet targets frequently unrelated to the needs and wants of consumers. By the same token, businesses which make losses do not have to close down, as the state would normally make additional funds available to cover any difference between sales revenue and costs. This being the case, the emphasis at firm level tends to be more on meeting targets than on achieving efficiency in the use of resources and hence a considerable degree of duplication and wastage tends to occur.

    In such an environment, the traditional entrepreneurial skills of efficient resource management, price setting and risk taking have little, if any, scope for development and managers behave essentially as technicians and bureaucrats, administering decisions largely made elsewhere. Firms, in effect, are mainly servants of the state and their activities are conditioned by social and political considerations, rather than by the needs of the market although some market activity normally occurs in planned economies (especially in agriculture and a number of private services). Accordingly, businesses and their employees are not fully sensitized to the needs of the consumer and as a result quality and choice (where it exists) may suffer, particularly where incentives to improved efficiency and performance are negligible. Equally, the system tends to encourage bribery and corruption and the development of a substantial black market, with differences in income, status and political influence being an important determinant of individual consumption and of living standards.

The free-market economy
The term free market economy primarily means a system where the buyers and sellers are solely responsible for the choices they make. In a way, free market gives the absolute power to prices to determine the allocation and distribution of goods and services. These prices, in turn, are fixed by the forces of supply and demand of a respective commodity. In cases of demand falling short of the supply of a respective commodity, the price will fall as opposed to a price rise when the supply is inadequate to meet the growing demand of a good or service. Free market economy is also characterized by free trade without any tariffs or subsidies imposed by the government.

The role of the government of a nation is only limited to controlling the law and order of a country and to ensure that a 'fair price' is charged by the sellers. That is to say, the government, having no role in administering the price of a commodity, has to see that the prices taken by the sellers is true and commensurate with the price determined by the forces of demand and supply.
The basic feature of the free market economy is that only people with sufficient control over resources, and wealth, in particular have the privilege to purchase goods and services, often priced very highly in a free economy. Prices, which are the only allocating and distributing factor in a free market economy, place the poor in an unenviable situation who are gradually thrown out of the system without any access to wealth and the basic needs of subsistence.

Thus it deems absolutely imperative that a country like India and a few Latin American countries like Brazil, Peru and Nicaragua having a large number of poor have a public distribution system in place with subsidized prices being fixed by the government to protect the poor. Free market economy is considered to the most efficient or optimum device to allocate a country’s resources, with wealth or income being the only yardstick. Free market economy is often associated with a Capitalistic Economy with means of production being privately owned.

the-market-economy

The diagram illustrates the basic operation of a market economy. In essence individuals are owners of resources (e.g. labour) and consumers of products; firms are users of resources and producers of products. What products are produced and hence how resources are used depends on consumers, who indicate their demands by purchasing (i.e. paying the price) or not purchasing, and this acts as a signal to producers to acquire the resources necessary (i.e. pay the price) to meet the preferences of consumers. If consumer demands change, for whatever reason, this will cause an automatic reallocation of resources, as firms respond to the new market conditions. Equally, competition between producers seeking to gain or retain customers is said to guarantee that resources are used efficiently and to ensure that the most appropriate production methods (i.e. how to produce) are employed in the pursuit of profits.

The distribution of output is also determined by market forces, in this case operating in the markets for productive services. Individuals supplying a resource (e.g. labour) receive an income (i.e. a price) from the firms using that resource and this allows them to purchase goods and services in the markets for products, which in turn provides an income for firms that can be spent on the purchase of further resources (see below). Should the demand for a particular type of productive resource increase say, as a result of an increase in the demand for the product produced by that resource the price paid to the provider of the resource will tend to rise and hence, other things being equal, allow more output to be purchased. Concomitantly, it is also likely to result in a shift of resources from uses which are relatively less lucrative to those which are relatively more rewarding.

This matching of supply and demand through prices in markets is described in detail in Chapter and the analysis can also be applied to the market for foreign currencies. In practice, of course, no economy operates entirely in the manner suggested above; firms after all are influenced by costs and supply decisions as well as by demand and generally seek to shape that demand, as well as simply responding to it. Nor for that matter is a market-based economy devoid of government involvement in the process of resource allocation, as evidenced by the existence of a public sector responsible for substantial levels of consumption and output and for helping to shape the conditions under which the private sector operates. In short, any study of the market economy needs to incorporate the role of government and to examine, in particular, its influence on the activities of both firms and households. Such an a The free-market economy The term free market economy primarily means a system where the buyers and sellers are solely responsible for the choices they make. In a way, free market gives the absolute power to prices to determine the allocation and distribution of goods and services. These prices, in turn, are fixed by the forces of supply and demand of a respective commodity. In cases of demand falling short of the supply of a respective commodity, the price will fall as opposed to a price rise when the supply is inadequate to meet the growing demand of a good or service. Free market economy is also characterized by free trade without any tariffs or subsidies imposed by the government. The role of the government of a nation is only limited to controlling the law and order of a country and to ensure that a 'fair price' is charged by the sellers. That is to say, the government, having no role in administering the price of a commodity, has to see that the prices taken by the sellers is true and commensurate with the price determined by the forces of demand and supply. The basic feature of the free market economy is that only people with sufficient control over resources, and wealth, in particular have the privilege to purchase goods and services, often priced very highly in a free economy. Prices, which are the only allocating and distributing factor in a free market economy, place the poor in an unenviable situation who are gradually thrown out of the system without any access to wealth and the basic needs of subsistence. Thus it deems absolutely imperative that a country like India and a few Latin American countries like Brazil, Peru and Nicaragua having a large number of poor have a public distribution system in place with subsidized prices being fixed by the government to protect the poor. Free market economy is considered to the most efficient or optimum device to allocate a country’s resources, with wealth or income being the only yardstick.Free market economy is often associated with a Capitalistic Economy with means of production being privately owned. The diagram in Figure illustrates the basic operation of a market economy. In essence individuals are owners of resources (e.g. labour) and consumers of products; firms are users of resources and producers of products. What products are produced – and hence how resources are used – depends on consumers, who indicate their demands by purchasing (i.e. paying the price) or not purchasing, and this acts as a signal to producers to acquire the resources necessary (i.e. pay the price) to meet the preferences of consumers. If consumer demands change, for whatever reason, this will cause an automatic reallocation of resources, as firms respond to the new market conditions. Equally, competition between producers seeking to gain or retain customers is said to guarantee that resources are used efficiently and to ensure that the most appropriate production methods (i.e. how to produce) are employed in the pursuit of profits. The distribution of output is also determined by market forces, in this case operating in the markets for productive services. Individuals supplying a resource (e.g. labour) receive an income (i.e. a price) from the firms using that resource and this allows them to purchase goods and services in the markets for products, which in turn provides an income for firms that can be spent on the purchase of further resources (see below). Should the demand for a particular type of productive resource increase – say, as a result of an increase in the demand for the product produced by that resource – the price paid to the provider of the resource will tend to rise and hence, other things being equal, allow more output to be purchased. Concomitantly, it is also likely to result in a shift of resources from uses which are relatively less lucrative to those which are relatively more rewarding. This matching of supply and demand through prices in markets is described in detail in Chapter and the analysis can also be applied to the market for foreign currencies. In practice, of course, no economy operates entirely in the manner suggested above; firms after all are influenced by costs and supply decisions as well as by demand and generally seek to shape that demand, as well as simply responding to it. Nor for that matter is a market-based economy devoid of government involvement in the process of resource allocation, as evidenced by the existence of a public sector responsible for substantial levels of consumption and output and for helping to shape the conditions under which the private sector operates. In short, any study of the market economy needs to incorporate the role of government and to examine, in particular, its influence on the activities of both firms and households. Such an analysis can be found below in the later sections. analysis can be found below in the later sections.


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