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2.3: Ethics, efficiency and beliefs
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Revisiting the definition of economics – core beliefs
- First of all we believe that markets are critical because they facilitate exchange and therefore encourage efficiency. Specialization and trade creates benefits for the trading parties. For example, Canada has not the appropriate climate for growing coffee beans, and Colombia has not the terrain for wheat. If Canada had to be self-sufficient, we might have to grow coffee beans in green-houses—a costly proposition. But with trade we can specialize, and then exchange some of our wheat for Colombian coffee. Similar benefits arise for the Colombians.
- A corollary of the centrality of markets is that incentives matter. If the price of business class seats on your favourite airline is reduced, you may consider upgrading. Economists believe strongly that the price mechanism influences behaviour, and therefore favour the use of price incentives in the marketplace and public policy more generally. Environmental economists, for example, advocate the use of pollution permits that can be traded at a price between users, or carbon taxes on the emission of greenhouse gases. We will develop such ideas in Principles of Microeconomics Chapter 5 more fully.
- In saying that economists believe in incentives, we are not proposing that human beings are purely mercenary. People have many motivations: Self-interest, a sense of public duty, kindness, etc. Acting out of a sense of self-interest does not imply that people are morally empty or have no altruistic sense.
- Economists believe universally in the importance of the rule of law, no matter where they sit on the political spectrum. Legal institutions that govern contracts are critical to the functioning of an economy. If goods and services are to be supplied in a market economy, the suppliers must be guaranteed that they will be remunerated. And this requires a developed legal structure with penalties imposed on individuals or groups who violate contracts. Markets alone will not function efficiently.
- Finally, economists believe in the centrality of government. Governments can solve a number of problems that arise in market economies that cannot be addressed by the private market place. For example, governments can best address the potential abuses of monopoly power. Monopoly power, as we shall see in Principles of Microeconomics Chapter 10, not only has equity impacts it may also reduce economic efficiency. Governments are also best positioned to deal with environmental or other types of externalities – the impact of economic activity on sectors of the economy that are not directly involved in the activity under consideration.