1. Introduction


    Market failure has become an increasingly important topic these days. There is a clear economic case for government intervention in markets where some form of market failure is taking place. Government can justify this by saying that intervention is in the public interest. Basically market failure occurs when markets do not bring about economic efficiency.

    Government intervention occurs when markets are not working optimally. In simple terms, the market may not always allocate scarce resources efficiently in a way that achieves the highest total social welfare.

    1. Examples of Potential Market Failure

    There are plenty of reasons why the normal operation of market forces may not lead to economic efficiency.

    a)Public Goods 

    Public Goods not provided by the free market because of their two main characteristics

    • Non-excludability where it is not possible to provide a good or service to one person without it thereby being available for others to enjoy
    • Non-rivalry where the consumption of a good or service by one person will not prevent others from enjoying it

    Examples: Street lighting / Lighthouse Protection, Police services,  Air defence systems, Roads / motorways, Terrestrial television, Flood defence systems, Public parks & beaches

    Because of their nature the private sector is unlikely to be willing and able to provide public goods. The government therefore provides them for collective consumption and finances them through general taxation.

    b)Merit Goods 

    Merit Goods are those goods and services that the government feels that people left to themselves will under-consume and which therefore ought to be subsidised or provided free at the point of use.

    Both the public and private sector of the economy can provide merit goods & services. Consumption of merit goods is thought to generate positive externality effects  where the social benefit from consumption exceeds the private benefit.

    Examples: Health services, Education, Work Training, Public Libraries, Citizen’s Advice, Inoculations


    Few modern markets meet the stringent conditions required for a perfectly competitive market. The existence of monopoly power is often thought to create the potential for market failure and a need for intervention to correct for some of the welfare consequences of monopoly power.

    The classical economic case against monopoly is that

    • Price is higher and output is lower under monopoly  than in a competitive market
    • This causes a net economic welfare loss of both consumer and producer surplus
    • Price > marginal cost – leading to allocative inefficiency
    • Rent seeking behaviour by the monopolist might add to the standard costs of monopoly. This includes high (possibly excessive) amounts of spending on persuasive advertising and marketing.



    Any exam question on market failure must make some reference to externalities. What are the potential market failures arising from externalities?

    The social optimum output or level of consumption diverges from the private optimum.

    Main problem is the absence of clearly defined property rights for those agents operating in the market. When property rights are not clearly defined, market failure is likely because producers & consumers may not be held to account

    Don’t forget that positive externalities can also justify intervention if goods are under-consumed (social benefit > private benefit)

    1. e) Inequality

    Market failure can also be caused by the existence of inequality throughout the economy. Wide differences in income and wealth between different groups within our economy leads to a wide gap in living standards between affluent households and those experiencing poverty. Society may come to the view that too much inequality is unacceptable or undesirable.

    Note here that value judgments come into play whenever we discuss the distribution of income and wealth in society. The government may decide to intervene to reduce inequality through changes to the tax and benefits system and also specific policies such as the national minimum wage.



    Government intervention may seek to correct for the distortions created by market failure and to improve the efficiency in the way that markets operate

    • Pollution taxes to correct for externalities
    • Taxation of monopoly profits
    • Direct provision of public goods (defence)
    • Policies to introduce competition into markets (de-regulation)
    • Price controls for the recently privatised utilities




    Social Costs = Private Costs + Social Costs

    Social Benefits = Private Benefits + Private Costs

    Search the Internet for these terms:

    1. i) Private Benefits
    2. ii) Private Costs

    iii) External Benefits

    1. iv) External Costs



    Read Chapter 9 of the Book ‘Economics by Brian Titley’