Not all economies are organized in the same way. The three major ways they can be organized are as a market economy, a command economy, or a mixed economy.
In a market economy, consumers and businesses decide what they want to produce and purchase in the marketplace. They make these decisions by “voting with their dollars.” Producers decide what to produce given the demand they see in the marketplace in terms of their sales and the prices they get for their goods and services. In a pure market economy, also known as a laissez-faire economy (from the French “allow to do”), the government plays a very limited role in what is produced. The government does not direct, and may even lack the power to direct, the private sector to produce certain goods and services.
In a market economy, the private-sector businesses and consumers decide what they will produce and purchase, with little government intervention. A laissez-faire economy is one in which the government plays a very limited role. In a command economy, also known as a planned economy, the government largely determines what is produced and in what amounts. In a mixed economy both market forces and government decisions determine which goods and services are produced and how they are distributed.
Welfare refers to government efforts to provide for people's basic needs. Also known as public assistance, because it comes from the public sector, these efforts take the form of government sponsored work projects and, more commonly, payments made by the government to support basic needs of those who cannot afford them. The federal food stamp and Medicare programs are both forms of welfare.
In a command economy, also known as a planned economy, the government largely determines what is produced and in what amounts. It directs producers to make and deliver goods and services in specified amounts. In practice, command economies are associated with socialism and communism, two closely related forms of government. Socialism and communism are characterized by collective ownership of the means of production and central planning functions that try to produce what people want and need, in the quantities and at the time required. The underlying philosophy of socialism is “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”
In command economies, the people (in the form of the state) own the means of production. The state, which is seen to embody the will of the people, decides what will be produced according to a plan based upon what the state calculates to be people's need and desire for various goods and services. The state also plays an important role in determining how goods and services are distributed, that is, in deciding who gets how much of what.
In a mixed economy both market forces and government decisions determine which goods and services are produced and how they are distributed. In general, market forces prevail in mixed economies. The government does not direct the private sector to produce certain goods and services in certain quantities at certain times. However, the government's influence in the economy stems from the amount of money (raised in the form of taxes and borrowings from the private sector) that it spends and, through various forms of welfare, redistributes.
Today, the economies of most industrial countries are considered mixed economies. In Western European nations the government usually plays a larger role in the economy than in North America. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the only two major planned economies are those of North Korea and the People's Republic of China. However, China has begun to incorporate some market mechanisms, such as competition, into its economy.
As we will see, markets, like governments, can be inefficient in delivering some goods and services. They are considered most inefficient at delivering what are known as ”public goods.” Essentially, a public good is something that everyone wants, such as clean air or a well-educated populace, but no one wants to pay for. While the U.S. society is experimenting with market incentives to obtain these goods—for instance, tradable exemptions from emissions controls and school voucher programs—markets have a generally poor record of delivering public goods. Universal health care is arguably a good example of this.
Although many people characterize the U.S. economy as a “free market economy,” it is clearly a mixed economy. The federal government alone accounts for about 19 percent of the U.S. economy (depending on what forms of government spending are counted). Adding state and local governments brings the public sector share up to about 28 percent. With that kind of economic clout, government at various levels has a lot to say about what is produced in our society and who gets what. Nevertheless, the United States relies on markets to a larger degree than any other major industrial nation in the world, so from a relative standpoint, it is indeed a free market economy.
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Economics © 2003 by Tom Gorman. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.