2.1 What is Economics?

To appreciate how a business functions, we need to know something about the economic environment in which it operates. We begin with a definition of economics and a discussion of the resources used to produce goods and services.

Resources: Inputs and Outputs

Economics is the study of the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. Resources are the inputs used to produce outputs. Resources may include any or all of the following:

  • Land and other natural resources
  • Labor (physical and mental)
  • Capital, including buildings and equipment
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Knowledge

Resources are combined to produce goods and services. Land and natural resources provide the needed raw materials. Labor transforms raw materials into goods and services. Capital (equipment, buildings, vehicles, cash, and so forth) are needed for the production process. Entrepreneurship provides the skill, drive and creativity needed to bring the other resources together to produce a good or service to be sold to the marketplace.

Because a business uses resources to produce things, we also call these resources factors of production. The factors of production used to produce a shirt would include the following:

  • The land that the shirt factory sits on, the electricity used to run the plant, and the raw cotton from which the shirts are made
  • The laborers who make the shirts
  • The factory and equipment used in the manufacturing process, as well as the money needed to operate the factory
  • The entrepreneurship skills and production knowledge used to coordinate the other resources to make the shirts and distribute them to the marketplace

Input and Output Markets

Many of the factors of production are provided to businesses by households. For example, households provide businesses with labor (as workers), land and buildings (as landlords), and capital (as investors). In turn, businesses pay households for these resources by providing them with income, such as wages, rent, and interest. The resources obtained from households are then used by businesses to produce goods and services, which are sold to provide businesses with revenue. The revenue obtained by businesses is then used to buy additional resources, and the cycle continues. This is described in Figure 2.1 “The Circular Flow of Inputs and Outputs”, which illustrates the dual roles of households and businesses:

  • Households not only provide factors of production (or resources) but also consume goods and services.
  • Businesses not only buy resources but also produce and sell both goods and services
A picture of a high rise building sits to the left of a picture of a house. The high rise building is labeled “Businesses,” and house is labeled “households.” Business has two bullet points: Produce and sell products to households; Buy inputs from households. Households has two bullet points: Buy products from firms; Provide inputs to firms. An arrow arcs from business to household and says, “outputs: goods and services (products). A separate return arrow says, “pay revenues for outputs”. An arrow arcs from household to business and says, “Inputs: Labor, Capital, Land, Entrepreneurship.” A separate return arrow says, “Pay incomes for inputs.”
Figure 2.1: The Circular Flow of Inputs and Outputs

Economic Systems

Economists study the interactions between households and businesses and look at the ways in which the factors of production are combined to produce the goods and services that people need. Basically, economists try to answer three sets of questions:

  • What goods and services should be produced to meet consumers’ needs? In what quantity? When?
  • How should goods and services be produced? Who should produce them, and what resources, including technology, should be combined to produce them?
  • Who should receive the goods and services produced? How should they be allocated among consumers?

The answers to these questions depend on a country’s economic system—the means by which a society (households, businesses, and government) makes decisions about allocating resources to produce products and about distributing those products. The degree to which individuals and business owners, as opposed to the government, enjoy freedom in making these decisions varies according to the type of economic system.

Generally speaking, economic systems can be divided into two systems: planned systems and free market systems.

Planned Systems

In a planned system, the government exerts control over the allocation and distribution of all or some goods and services. The system with the highest level of government control is communism. In theory, a communist economy is one in which the government owns all or most enterprises. Central planning by the government dictates which goods or services are produced, how they are produced, and who will receive them. In practice, pure communism is practically nonexistent today, and only a few countries (notably North Korea and Cuba) operate under rigid, centrally planned economic systems.

Under socialism, industries that provide essential services, such as utilities, banking, and health care, may be government owned. Some businesses may also be owned privately. Central planning allocates the goods and services produced by government-run industries and tries to ensure that the resulting wealth is distributed equally. In contrast, privately owned companies are operated for the purpose of making a profit for their owners. In general, workers in socialist economies work fewer hours, have longer vacations, and receive more health care, education, and child-care benefits than do workers in capitalist economies. To offset the high cost of public services, taxes are generally steep. Examples of countries that lean towards a socialistic approach include Venezuela, Sweden, and France.

Free Market System

The economic system in which most businesses are owned and operated by individuals is the free market system, also known as capitalism. In a free market economy, competition dictates how goods and services will be allocated. Business is conducted with more limited government involvement concentrated on regulations that dictate how businesses are permitted to operate. A key aspect of a free market system is the concept of private property rights, which means that business owners can expect to own their land, buildings, machines, etc., and keep the majority of their profits, except for taxes. The profit incentive is a key driver of any free market system. The economies of the United States and other countries, such as Japan, are based on capitalism. However, a purely capitalistic economy is as rare as one that is purely communist. Imagine if a service such as police protection, one provided by government in the United States, were instead allocated based on market forces. The ability to pay would then become a key determinant in who received these services, an outcome that few in American society would consider to be acceptable.

How Economic Systems Compare

In comparing economic systems, it can be helpful to think of a continuum with communism at one end and pure capitalism at the other, as in Figure 3.2 on the next page. As you move from left to right, the amount of government control over business diminishes. So, too, does the level of social services, such as health care, child-care services, social security, and unemployment benefits. Moving from left to right, taxes are correspondingly lower as well.

An open, double ended arrow labeled “Economic Systems”. The left side is labeled “Pure planned economy” and the right side is labeled “Pure free market.” Within the arrow, the left side is labeled “Communism.” Inside the middle of the arrow is a heading labeled “Mixed Economies” with a left heading of “Socialist leaning,” and a right heading of “Capitalist leaning.” Inside the right arrowhead is the label “Pure Competition.” Underneath the arrow are example countries, with arrows pointed up from the names toward the larger arrow to indicate where they lie on the spectrum. The leftmost country, between Communism and Socialist leaning is North Korea. Under Socialist leaning is China and Venezuela. Between Socialist leaning and Capitalist leaning is France and Sweden. Between Capitalist leaning and Pure Competition is the United States and Japan.
Figure 2.2: The Economic Spectrum

Mixed Market Economies

Though it’s possible to have a pure communist system, or a pure capitalist (free market) system, in reality many economic systems are mixed. A mixed market economy relies on both markets and the government to allocate resources. In practice, most economies are mixed, with a leaning towards either free market or socialistic principles, rather than being purely one or the other. Some previously communist economies, such as those of Eastern Europe and China, are becoming more mixed as they adopt more capitalistic characteristics and convert businesses previously owned by the government to private ownership through a process called privatization. By contrast, Venezuela is a country that has moved increasingly towards socialism, taking control of industries such as oil and media through a process called nationalization.

The U.S. Economic System

Like most countries, the United States features a mixed market system: though the U.S. economic system is primarily a free market system, the federal government controls some basic services, such as the postal service and air traffic control. The U.S. economy also has some characteristics of a socialist system, such as providing social security retirement benefits to retired workers.

The free market system was espoused by Adam Smith in his book The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. According to Smith, competition alone would ensure that consumers received the best products at the best prices. In the kind of competition he assumed, a seller who tries to charge more for his product than other sellers would not be able to find any buyers. A job-seeker who asks more than the going wage won’t be hired. Because the “invisible hand” of competition will make the market work effectively, there won’t be a need to regulate prices or wages. Almost immediately, however, a tension developed among free market theorists between the principle of laissez-faire—leaving things alone—and government intervention. Today, it’s common for the U.S. government to intervene in the operation of the economic system. For example, government exerts influence on the food and pharmaceutical industries through the Food and Drug Administration, which protects consumers by preventing unsafe or mislabeled products from reaching the market.

To appreciate how businesses operate, we must first get an idea of how prices are set in competitive markets. The next section, “Perfect Competition and Supply and Demand,” begins by describing how markets establish prices in an environment of perfect competition.

Key Takeaways

  • Economics is the study of the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.
  • Economists address these three questions: (1) What goods and services should be produced to meet consumer needs? (2) How should they be produced, and who should produce them? (3) Who should receive goods and services?
  • The answers to these questions depend on a country’s economic system. The primary economic systems that exist today are planned and free-market systems.
  • In a planned system, such as communism and socialism, the government exerts control over the production and distribution of all or some goods and services.
  • In a free-market system, also known as capitalism, business is conducted with limited government involvement. Competition determines what goods and services are produced, how they are produced, and for whom.

License

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Foundations of Business by Manika Avasthi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book