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When perfectly competitive firms maximize their profits by producing the quantity where P = MC, they also assure that the benefits to consumers of what they are buying, as measured by the price they are willing to pay, is equal to the costs to society of producing the marginal units, as measured by the marginal costs the firm must pay—and thus that allocative efficiency holds.

The statements that a perfectly competitive market in the long run will feature both productive and allocative efficiency do need to be taken with a few grains of salt. Remember, economists are using the concept of “efficiency” in a particular and specific sense, not as a synonym for “desirable in every way.” For one thing, consumers’ ability to pay reflects the income distribution in a particular society. Thus, a homeless person may have no ability to pay for housing because they have insufficient income.

Perfect competition, in the long run, is a hypothetical benchmark. For market structures such as monopoly, monopolistic competition, and oligopoly, which are more frequently observed in the real world than perfect competition, firms will not always produce at the minimum of average cost, nor will they always set price equal to marginal cost. Thus, these other competitive situations will not produce productive and allocative efficiency.

Moreover, real-world markets include many issues that are assumed away in the model of perfect competition, including pollution, inventions of new technology, poverty which may make some people unable to pay for basic necessities of life, government programs like national defense or education, discrimination in labor markets, and buyers and sellers who must deal with imperfect and unclear information. These issues are explored in other chapters. However, the theoretical efficiency of perfect competition does provide a useful benchmark for comparing the issues that arise from these real-world problems.

A dime a dozen

A quick glance at [link] reveals the dramatic increase in North Dakota corn production—more than double. Taking into consideration that corn typically yields two to three times as many bushels per acre as wheat, it is obvious there has been a significant increase in bushels of corn. Why the increase in corn acreage? Converging prices.

(Source: USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service)
Year Corn (millions of acres) Wheat (millions of acres)
2014 91.6 56.82

Historically, wheat prices have been higher than corn prices, offsetting wheat’s lower yield per acre. However, in recent years wheat and corn prices have been converging. In April 2013, Agweek reported the gap was just 71 cents per bushel. As the difference in price narrowed, switching to the production of higher yield per acre of corn simply made good business sense. Erik Younggren, president of the National Association of Wheat Growers said in the Agweek article, “I don't think we're going to see mile after mile of waving amber fields [of wheat] anymore." (Until wheat prices rise, we will probably be seeing field after field of tasseled corn.)

Key concepts and summary

Long-run equilibrium in perfectly competitive markets meets two important conditions: allocative efficiency and productive efficiency. These two conditions have important implications. First, resources are allocated to their best alternative use. Second, they provide the maximum satisfaction attainable by society.

References

Index Mundi. n.d. “Wheat Monthly Price—U.S. Dollars per Metric Ton.” Accessed March 11, 2015. http://www.indexmundi.com/commodities/?commodity=wheat.

Knutson, J. “Wheat on the Defensive in the Northern Plains.” Agweek, Associated Press State Wire: North Dakota (ND) . April 14, 2013.

SBA Office of Advocacy. 2014. “Frequently Asked Questions: Advocacy: the voice of small business in government.” Accessed March 11, 2015. https://www.sba.gov/sites/default/files/advocacy/FAQ_March_2014_0.pdf.

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, Principles of economics. OpenStax CNX. Sep 19, 2014 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11613/1.11
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