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RF Fall Winter 07v42-sig3-INT 2/27/07 8:45 AM Page 8

Pareto Efficiency

magine you and a friend are walking down the street competitive equilibrium is typically included among them.
and a $100 bill magically appears. You would likely A major drawback of Pareto efficiency, some ethicists claim,
share the money evenly, each taking $50, deeming this is that it does not suggest which of the Pareto efficient
the fairest division. According to Pareto efficiency, however, outcomes is best.
any allocation of the $100 would be optimal — including the Furthermore, the concept does not require an equitable
distribution you would likely prefer: keeping all $100 for distribution of wealth, nor does it necessarily suggest taking
yourself. remedial steps to correct for existing inequality. If the
Pareto efficiency says that an allocation is efficient if an incomes of the wealthy increase while the incomes of every-
action makes some individual better off and no individual one else remain stable, such a change is Pareto efficient.
worse off. The concept was developed by Vilfredo Pareto, an Martin Feldstein, an economist at Harvard University and
Italian economist and sociologist known for his application president of the National Bureau of Economic Research,
of mathematics to economic analysis, and particularly for his explains that some see this as unfair. Such critics, while con-
Manual of Political Economy (1906). ceding that the outcome is Pareto
Pareto used this work to develop efficient, might complain: “I don’t
his theory of pure economics, have fewer material goods, but I
analyze “ophelimity,” his own have the extra pain of living in a
term indicating the power of more unequal world.” In short,
giving satisfaction, and intro- they are concerned about not only
duce indifference curves. In a person’s absolute position but
doing so, he laid the foundation also his relative position, and
of modern welfare economics. argue that, as a result, Paretian
Because the two individuals analysis has little to offer.
in the opening example will Feldstein rejects this argument
not lose any of the money they and maintains that Pareto effi-
originally held, they cannot end ciency is a good guiding principle
up worse off than they started. for economists, even if some
Any additional amount of actions that promote Pareto
money that they receive will efficiency lead to increases
make them better off. If one in income inequality. Instead,
individual keeps all $100, the Feldstein argues that we should
other will be as well off as he focus on poverty, and to do this
was before the money appeared. Whether the money is we should not stifle changes that would increase the total
split evenly or one individual keeps more than the other, economic pie just because they would also produce
Pareto efficiency is achieved. outcomes that would initially increase inequality.
Consider another example: the sale of a used car. The In general, rich societies can more effectively deal with
seller may value the car at $10,000, while the buyer is such problems than poor ones. For instance, would you
willing to pay $15,000 for it. A deal in which the car is sold rather live in a country that has almost perfect income
for $12,500 would be Pareto efficient because both the equality but is desperately poor or one that has quite a bit
seller and the buyer are better off as a result of the trade. In of income inequality but is rich enough to help out its most
this case, they are better off by the same amount: $2,500. unfortunate citizens? Most people would choose the latter.
However, any price between $10,000 and $15,000 is Pareto That said, Pareto efficiency may not be the only
efficient because the seller receives more value in money benchmark that a society may wish to use in choosing
than the value he places on the car, and the buyer values the between alternative public policies. It can be a very helpful
car more than the money he pays for it. guide — and, indeed, has enriched economic analysis a
Pareto efficiency has applications in game theory, great deal — but as Pareto himself wrote, “Political economy

multicriteria decisionmaking, engineering, and many of does not have to take morality into account. But one who
the social sciences. It is a central principle in economics. extols some practical measure ought to take into account not
In general, an economic allocation problem has several only the economic consequences, but also the moral,
possible Pareto efficient outcomes. In the marketplace, the religious, political, etc., consequences.” RF

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