SummaryWelfare economics analyses different states in which markets or the economy can be. Its main objective is to find an indicator or measure in order to guarantee that markets are behaving optimally, thus also guaranteeing that consumer welfare is as high as possible. In this Learning Path, we learn about the basics of welfare economics.
A market system is in competitive equilibrium when prices are set in such a way that the market clears, or in other words, demand and supply are equalised. At this competitive equilibrium, firms’ profits will necessarily have to be zero, because otherwise there will be new firms that, attracted by the profits, would enter the market increasing supply and pushing prices down. Following the first fundamental theorem of welfare economics, this equilibrium must be Pareto efficient. Both will have a fundamental relation as a mechanism for determining optimal production, consumption and exchange.
Let’s consider an economy where there are:
Two factors of production: capital (K) and labour (L).
Two goods: good X and good Y.
Two agents: A and B
The economic problem that is faced needs to find the most adequate allocation of factors of production in order to produce goods X and Y and how these goods will be distributed amongst consumers A and B. This configuration will be such that there will be no other feasible configuration that will allow an increase in any individual’s welfare without decreasing the other individual’s welfare.
In order to achieve Pareto optimality, a certain set of assumptions need to be held.
-The production function needs to be continuous, differentiable, and strictly concave. This will result in a convex set of production possibilities, also known as production possibility frontier Its shape shows an increasing opportunity cost as we need to use a higher number of resources in order to produce a larger amount of a certain good.
The optimisation problem in production relies in the maximisation of total output production taking into consideration that it is subject to a limited amount of capital and labour. Analytically,
We can start by looking at the production of goods X and Y as two different optimisation problems. The firm will have to decide what quantity of capital and labour allocate to the production of good X, as shown on the left side of the diagram below, but also what quantity of capital and labour assign to the production of good Y, as shown on the right. These curves are the isoquants corresponding to each production process.
These two diagrams can be plotted together using what is known as the Edgeworth box, which makes it easier to compare quantities of capital and labour used, while also comparing quantities of goods X and Y being produced. Indeed, it’s not only easier to analyse, but also makes more sense, since the total available quantities of capital and labour are given.
The solution to this problem is related to the marginal rate of technical substitution (MRTS). A higher efficiency will be achieved if the reallocation of a unit of labour or capital from one good to another leads to a higher production of the former. When the marginal rate of technical substitution is equal for both goods, it means that all available inputs are being used, which translates into a purely efficient production process.
Graphically, if we plot all these points we construct what is known as the contract curve (blue curve in the Edgeworth box). These represent all Pareto efficient distributions, such as F, G or H. I is not Pareto efficient, since going from I to either G or H would result in an increase in the production of one of the goods without giving up the production of the other. From this curve we can derive the production possibility frontier, which shows the quantities of goods X and Y being produced, as shown in the following diagram. It must be noted that both the contract curve and its derivative, the production possibility frontier, show all the solutions that are Pareto efficient from the firm’s point of view. Only when considering input and output prices will we be able to determine a unique solution (because of the concavity of the production possibility frontier).
Bundles of goods cannot be ranked in a reliable way without knowledge of the distribution of the products, especially if a bundle has different amounts of each good. There may be some bundles that have more products of a good but less of another. The optimisation problem will be to maximise the utility of individuals A and B subject to a limited total amount of goods X and Y. Analytically,
In this case we have to achieve the optimal distribution of two, already produced goods (X and Y) between two individuals (A and B). We can follow the same step by step method used before. Here, we’ll plot indifference curves corresponding to the amounts of goods X and Y consumed by A (on the left), and the amounts of goods consumed by B (on the right).
Again, we use the Edgeworth box to graph the different distributions that can be given between two individuals, A and B, and two goods, X and Y. The further the indifference curve is from the origin, the higher the level of utility enjoyed by the consumer.
Although all the points in the graphic are feasible, not all are efficient, given the utilities and preferences of consumers. The indifference curves join all the points that give consumers the same level of utility. By connecting all points of tangency between the indifference curves of both individuals, the contract curve is constructed and represents all Pareto efficient allocations. The tangency between indifference curves is the point where both consumers have an equal marginal rate of substitution for goods X and Y, and are therefore not willing to trade between them, as it would result in a lower utility.
Until now we have only considered different parts of the economy, and not the economy as a whole. The optimisation problem faced this time is similar to the previous one, although this time an additional restriction is added, since we are here considering both production and consumption: the production level also needs to be efficient.
As this optimisation problem is based on the previous one, we have the same marginal rate of substitution equalisation, but also these two must be equal to the marginal rate of transformation, the PPF’s slope,
These solutions are multiple, since there are various points where the condition holds. However, if we consider output prices (given by the consideration of input prices mentioned before), we are able to consider a unique solution. In the adjacent diagram, if output prices were to be PX and PY, the equilibrium would be point E. However, if output prices were instead P’X and P’Y, the equilibrium would be point E’.
Let’s say that prices are set at PX and PY, and that the equilibrium point is E, as seen in the diagram below. Consumers A and B will consume both goods X and Y in different amounts. These amounts are given by the equilibrium in consumption, point E on the contract curve. We have also equilibrium in the production process, given by point E on the production possibility frontier. We know this is a general equilibrium because the marginal rate of substitution is equal to the marginal rate of transformation; or, in other words, the slopes of the indifference curves are equal to the slopes of the production possibility frontier.
Competitive markets result in an equilibrium position such that it is not possible to make a change in the allocation without making someone else worse-off. In reality there are many Pareto optimums and we cannot state that one is better than the other. Even if one consumer got all of the production and the other one none, we cannot say it is an inefficient distribution if all resources are being used efficiently. This is the reason why some economists believe it is an incomplete criterion. However, there are others, such as Milton Friedman and the advocates of the Chicago School, for whom this proves that the economy will act efficiently without the need of government intervention.