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Public economics (or economics of the public sector) is the study of economic issues concerning the public sector (including government) and its interface with the private sector (including households, businesses, and markets) in a mixed economy. While much of economics is based on how markets work, public economics considers the functioning of government and its role and scope in promoting economic well-being.

Broad methods and topics include:

Emphasis is on analytical and scientific methods and normative-ethical analysis, as distinguished from ideology. Examples of topics covered are tax incidence, optimal taxation, the theory of public goods.[4][5]


Markets and governments efficiency and failure


Natural monopoly

Information asymmetry

  • "As Bruce Greenwald and I have shown, whenever information is imperfect - that is, always - markets are inefficient; hence the need for government action."[6]

Public good

A public good has the feature that the marginal cost of an additional individual enjoying it is zero. Examples include an army, street lighting, radio signals or information. If there is an army defending one person in a country, a street lamp for one person, a radio signal for one person, then it is with no extra cost that two or more people use the service. For information, whose character as a public good was emphasised by Joseph Stiglitz, an old aphorism of philosopher Bertrand Russell holds true,

"If I have one apple and you have one apple and we exchange apples, we both have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange ideas, then we both have two."

The problem of the public good is that if people can use the good or service at the same time and cannot be excluded from its use (which with a cost they sometimes can, e.g. encoding a Wifi signal with a password) then people can "free-ride" on its use. Consumers will not be contributing to the costs of production. Because producers cannot recoup enough expenses, there will be an underproduction of public goods. There is therefore a role for state intervention. The government through taxation can get all people to contribute.[7][8]


Incomplete markets

Macroeconomic instability

Public expenditure

Public goods

  • Characteristics

Public goods are [non-excludable] and [non-rivaled]. Something is non-excludable if its use is cannot be limited to a certain group of people. For example, since one cannot prevent people from viewing a firework display it is non-excludable. Something is non-rivaled if one person's consumption of it does not deprive another person, again (to a point) a firework display is non-rivaled - since one person watching a firework display does not prevent another person from doing so.

  • The demand for pure public goods
  • Efficient output of a pure public good
  • The free rider problem

Public choice and the political process

Externalities and government policy

  • Internalization of externalities
  • The Coase Theorem. The Coase theorem states that when trade in an externality is possible and there are no transaction costs, bargaining will lead to an efficient outcome regardless of the initial allocation of property rights.

Particular sectors

Health care

Defence and technology

Social security

Welfare and employment


Regulated markets

Emergency and local services

Public finance and tax

See also


  1. ^ B. Douglas Bernheim and Antonio Rangel, 2008. "behavioural public economics," The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, 2nd Edition Abstract.
  2. ^ Dani Rodrik, 1996. "Understanding Economic Policy Reform," Journal of Economic Literature, 34(1), pp. 9–41 (press +).
  3. ^ Mrinal Datta-Chaudhuri, 1990. "Market Failure and Government Failure." Journal of Economic Perspectives, 4(3) , pp. 25-39 (press +).
  4. ^ Serge-Christophe Kolm, 1987. "public economics," The New Palgrave: A Dictionary of Economics, v. 3, pp. 1047-48.
  5. ^ Anthony B. Atkinson and Joseph E. Stiglitz, 1980. Lectures in Public Economics, McGraw-Hill, pp. vii-xi).
  6. ^ Joseph Stiglitz, 'John Kenneth Galbraith understood capitalism as lived - not as theorized' (28.12.2008) Christian Science Monitor
  7. ^ Mancur Olson, 1971. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups, Harvard University Press, 2nd ed. Description and chapter-preview links, pp. ix-x.
  8. ^ James M. Buchanan, 1968. The Demand and Supply of Public Goods. Rand McNally. Chapter links.


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