Economic problem

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The economic problem—sometimes called the basic, central, or fundamental economic problem—is one of the fundamental economic theoretical principles in the operation of any economy.[citation needed] It asserts that there is scarcity; that is, that the finite resources available are insufficient to satisfy all human wants and needs. The question then becomes how to determine what is to be produced, and how the factors of production (such as capital and labor) are to be allocated. Economics revolves around methods and possibilities of solving this fundamental economic problem.

The economic problem arises mainly due to two facts: human wants are unlimited, but the means to satisfy human wants are scarce.


The economic problem is most simply explained by the question: "How do we satisfy unlimited wants with limited resources?" The premise of the economic problem model is that wants are constant and infinite due to constantly changing demands (often closely related to changing demographics of the population), but resources in the world to satisfy human wants are always limited to the amount of natural or human resources available. The economic problem—and methods to curb it—revolve around the idea of choice in prioritizing which wants can be fulfilled and what to produce for the economy.

Opportunity cost is the next best alternative given up by choosing another item. We make choices every day. We have to, as we have limited resources but so many wants. We therefore have to decide which wants we will satisfy and those which we will not. All choices involve giving something up - this leads to "opportunity cost". This problem of 'what to give up' exists not only for consumers like us but for governments and businesses too.

Needs and wants[edit]

Needs are material items people need for survival, such as food, clothing, housing, and water. Until the Industrial Revolution, the vast majority of the worlds population struggled for access to basic human needs.

Wants are effective desires for a particular product, or for something which can only be obtained by working for it. While the fundamental needs of survival are key in the function of the economy, wants are the driving force which stimulates demand for goods and services. In order to curb the economic problem, economists must classify the nature and different wants of consumers, as well as prioritize wants and organize production to satisfy as many wants as possible.

One assumption often made in mainstream neoclassical economics (and the methods which attempt to solve the economic problem) is that humans inherently pursue their self-interest, and that the market mechanism best satisfies the various wants different individuals might have. These wants are often divided into individual wants (which depend on the individual's preferences and purchasing power parity) and collective wants (which are the wants of entire groups of people). Things such as food and clothing can be classified as either wants or needs, depending on what type and how often a good is requested.

Four parts of the problem[edit]

The economic problem can be divided into different parts, which are given below.

Problem of allocation of resources[edit]

The problem of allocation of resources arises due to the scarcity of resources, and refers to the question of which wants should be satisfied and which should be left unsatisfied; in other words, what to produce and how much to produce. More production of a good implies more resources required for the production of that good, and resources are scarce. These two facts together mean that, if a society decides to increase production of some good, it has to withdraw some resources from the production of other goods; in other words, more production of a desired commodity can be made possible only by reducing the quantity of resources used in the production of other goods.

The problem of allocation deals with the question of whether to produce capital goods or consumer goods. If the community decides to produce capital goods, resources will have to be withdrawn from the production of consumer goods. However, in the long run, the investment on capital goods will augment the production of consumer goods. Thus, both capital and consumer goods are important. The problem is determining what the optimal ratio of production between the two types of goods is.

The problem of all economic efficiency[edit]

Resources are scarce and it is important to use them as efficiently as possible. Thus, it is essential to know if the production and distribution of national product made by an economy is maximally efficient. The production becomes efficient only if the productive resources are utilized in such a way that any reallocation does not produce more of one good without reducing the output of any other good; in other words, "efficient distribution" means that any redistribution of goods cannot make anyone better off without making someone else worse off. (See Pareto efficiency.)

The inefficiencies of production and distribution exist in all types of economies. The welfare of the people can be increased if these inefficiencies are ruled out. Some cost will have to be incurred to remove these inefficiencies. If the cost of removing these inefficiencies of production and distribution is more than the gain, then it is not worthwhile to remove them.

The problem of full-employment of resources[edit]

In view of the scarce resources, the question of whether all available resources are fully utilized is an important one. A community should achieve maximum satisfaction by using the scarce resources in the best possible manner; resources should not be wasted or used inefficiently. There are two types of employment of resources:

  • Labour-intensive
  • Capital-intensive

However, in capitalist economies, the available resources are not fully utilised. In times of depression, there are many people willing and wanting to work who go without employment. It supposes that the scarce resources are not fully utilised in a capitalist economy.

The problem of economic growth[edit]

If the productive capacity of the world grows, it will be able to produce progressively more goods, which will result in a rise in the standard of living of the people in that economy. The increase in productive capacity of an economy is called economic growth. There are various factors affecting economic growth. The problems of economic growth have been discussed by numerous growth models, including the Harrod-Domar model, the neoclassical growth models of Solow and Swan, and the Cambridge growth models of Kaldor and Joan Robinson. This part of economic problem is studied in the economies of development.

See also[edit]