Gary Becker

Market Failure Compared to Government Failure

When an industry in the private sector is not performing efficiently or effectively, there is said to be “market failure”. The recommendation by economists and others typically is then for government actions to combat such failure, such as taxes to help reduce pollution. The diagnosis of market failure may be accurate, but the call for government involvement may be naïve and inappropriate.

The reason is that actual governments do not necessarily do what economists and others want them to do because there is “government failure” as well as market failure. Before recommending government actions to correct market failures, one should consider whether actual government policies would worsen rather than improve private sector outcomes. Since many factors often make for considerable government failure, considering such failure is crucial and not just a theoretical fine point.

Consider, for example, that consumers are sometimes ignorant of the qualities and other aspects of the products they buy. However, before advocating various forms of government protection of consumers, we should recognize that voters are far more ignorant of political candidates then consumers are of what they buy. The reason is that consumers directly suffer if they make bad choices out of ignorance, while individual voters have negligible influence over political outcomes. Hence voters have little incentive to be informed about different candidates and their positions, and the consequences of the mistakes they make are largely borne by others.

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