The Tragedy of the Commons as a Market Failure

One notable form of market failure arises due to a phenomenon first articulated by American ecologist Garrett Hardin, who warned of the Tragedy of the Commons. In his 1968 essay, Hardin explained that when there exist common resources, for which there is no private owner, the incentive among rational users of that resources is to exploit it to the fullest potential in order to maximize their own self gain before the resource is depleted. The tragedy of the commons, therefore, is that common resources will inevitably be depleted due to humans’ self-interested behavior, leaving us with shortages in key resources essential to human survival.

In this video lesson the market failure of common access resources is explained and applied to three such resources being depleted in an unsustainable manner by the world’s people today: fish in the seas, trees from the forests and air in our atmosphere.

After watching this video, you may find the following blog posts particularly useful in learning and understanding what makes common resources a market failure:


Negative Externalities of Consumption as a Market Failure

Sometimes a good’s consumption imposes costs on third parties not involved in the market. Such situations are evidence of a type of market failure known as negative consumption externalities. This lesson introduces the key terms and diagrams required to analyze such market failures and provides several examples and potential solutions.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Calculating the Effects of Price Controls

This lesson applies linear equations for demand and supply to our analysis of the effects of price controls. We can determine the precise surplus that will result from a price floor or the shortage that results from a price ceiling by applying the government set prices to the equations for supply and demand.

Before watching this video students should view the lesson that introduces price controls, Determining the Effects of Price Ceilings nad Price Floors.


Determining the Effects of Price Ceilings and Price Floors

This video lesson examines the effect of two types of government interventions in the markets for particular goods. Price ceilings and price controls consist of maximum or minimum prices imposed by government, intended to help either the consumers or the producers of particular goods. Like many forms of government intervention, price controls have unintended consequences that usually make them inefficient, and reduce total welfare in affected markets.

In this lesson we will look at two real world examples of price controls: the market for butter in Europe, in which European governments enforce a price floor intended to help butter producers, and the market for petrol in China, in which the Chinese government enforces a price ceilings meant to help consumers. Once you have watched the videos, follow the links below two blog posts about these two examples, and respond to the discussion questions at the end of the posts.


Price controls on the blog:

  1. The problem with price controls in Europe’s agricultural markets
  2. Price controls in the Chinese Petrol market – or why you may have to wait in line to fill your gas tank!

Calculating the Effects of a Subsidy

This lesson explains how to calculate the effects of a per unit subsidy in a commodity market (in this case corn) using linear demand and supply equations. By employing demand and supply equations, we can determine how a per unit subsidy will effect supply, and then we can calculate the new equilibrium price and quantity. To extend our analysis, we can calculate the increase in consumer and producer surplus, the total cost to taxpayers of the subsidy, and thereby the net cost of the subsidy to society as a whole.


The Effects of a Subsidy on Market Equilibrium

This video lesson illustrates and explains the effects that a per unit subsidy will have on the market for a commodity, in this case, corn. The payment to producers from government lowers the marginal cost of production, increases supply and leads to lower prices for consumers and greater revenues for producers. However, subsidies are not always economically efficient, since as we will see, the cost to taxpayers may outweigh the benefit to producers and consumers, meaning a subsidy may result in a net loss of societal welfare.


Examining the effect of an excise tax on an inelastic good – Cigarettes

This video lesson explains how a specific excise tax will affect the equilibrium price and quantity in the market for cigarettes, which is used to represents a good for which demand is relatively inelastic. We will also explain how the tax burden is shared by both producers and consumers, and the portion of the tax born by consumers depends on the elasticity of demand for the product.


A supply and demand paradox – Why is the Chevy Volt twice the price of the Chevy Cruze?

One of the many things I appreciate about economics is that it helps us better understand things in the world around us that without economic tools would seem like mysteries. For example, a few weeks ago I went for a hike with a friend who works for General Motors here in Switzerland. One perk of his job is that he gets to drive different GM cars around before they go on sale in Europe. He showed up to the hike in a 2012 Chevy Cruze. I commented on what a nice looking car it was and asked him how much it would sell for. He told me it would start aroun 17,000 francs here in Switzerland, and then he told me about Chevy’s new plug-in hybrid, the Chevy Volt, which would start at around 32,000 francs.





I decided to ask my IB students today to try and explain the price differences between the Chevy Volt and the Cruze using supply and demand analysis. In the video below, I offer my own economic analysis of the two cars. Watch the video and respond to the discussion questions that follow.


Efficiency and equilibrium in competitive markets

This week we will be wrapping up unit 1.1 from the IB Economics syllabus here in Zurich. The final topic to cover from this section of the course is the relationship between equilibrium in a competitive market and allocative efficiency. The video below explains why the most efficient result a market can hope to achieve occurs when the price and quantity are determined by the intersection of supply and demand. Any price and quantity combination other than that found at equilibrium will reduce overall efficiency and lead to a loss of societal welfare.


Discussion Questions about Efficiency:

  1. “The invisible hand of the competitive market results in a more efficient allocation of resources than prices set by a government can ever hope to achieve.” Explain the economic reasoning behind this statement.
  2. Why does the marginal benefit to consumers of a good decrease the greater the quantity of the good becomes available on the market? Why does the marginal cost to producers increase?
  3. How do competitive market forces assure resources will be efficiently allocated towards the provision of various goods and services? In other words, if the quantity in a market is not at equilibrium, why is it likely to move towards equilibrium over time?