Apr 3, 2009

What Is A Monopoly?

From Encarta:

Monopoly, economic situation in which only a single seller or producer supplies a commodity or a service. For a monopoly to be effective, there must be no practical substitutes for the product or service sold, and no serious threat of the entry of a competitor into the market. This enables the seller to control the price.

One or more of the following elements are of great importance in establishing a monopoly in a particular industry: (1) control of a major resource necessary to produce a product, as was the case with bauxite in the pre-World War II aluminum industry; (2) technological capabilities that allow a single firm to produce at reasonable prices all the output of a particular commodity or service, a situation sometimes described as a “natural” monopoly; (3) exclusive control over a patent on a product or on the processes used to produce the product; and (4) a government franchise that awards a company the sole right to produce a commodity or service in a given area. (read more)

From The Library of Economics:

A monopoly is an enterprise that is the only seller of a good or service. In the absence of government intervention, a monopoly is free to set any price it chooses and will usually set the price that yields the largest possible profit. Just being a monopoly need not make an enterprise more profitable than other enterprises that face competition: the market may be so small that it barely supports one enterprise. But if the monopoly is in fact more profitable than competitive enterprises, economists expect that other entrepreneurs will enter the business to capture some of the higher returns. If enough rivals enter, their competition will drive prices down and eliminate monopoly power.

Before and during the period of the classical economics (roughly 1776–1850), most people believed that this process of monopolies being eroded by new competitors was pervasive. The only monopolies that could persist, they thought, were those that got the government to exclude rivals. This belief was well expressed in an excellent article on monopoly in the Penny Cyclopedia (1839, vol. 15, p. 741):

It seems then that the word monopoly was never used in English law, except when there was a royal grant authorizing some one or more persons only to deal in or sell a certain commodity or article. If a number of individuals were to unite for the purpose of producing any particular article or commodity, and if they should succeed in selling such article very extensively, and almost solely, such individuals in popular language would be said to have a monopoly. Now, as these individuals have no advantage given them by the law over other persons, it is clear they can only sell more of their commodity than other persons by producing the commodity cheaper and better.

Even today, most important enduring monopolies or near monopolies in the United States rest on government policies. The government’s support is responsible for fixing agricultural prices above competitive levels, for the exclusive ownership of cable television operating systems in most markets, for the exclusive franchises of public utilities and radio and TV channels, for the single postal service—the list goes on and on. Monopolies that exist independent of government support are likely to be due to smallness of markets (the only druggist in town) or to rest on temporary leadership in innovation (the Aluminum Company of America until World War II).

Why do economists object to monopoly? The purely “economic” argument against monopoly is very different from what noneconomists might expect. Successful monopolists charge prices above what they would be with competition so that customers pay more and the monopolists (and perhaps their employees) gain. It may seem strange, but economists see no reason to criticize monopolies simply because they transfer wealth from customers to monopoly producers. That is because economists have no way of knowing who is the more worthy of the two parties—the producer or the customer. Of course, people (including economists) may object to the wealth transfer on other grounds, including moral ones. But the transfer itself does not present an “economic” problem.

Rather, the purely “economic” case against monopoly is that it reduces aggregate economic welfare (as opposed to simply making some people worse off and others better off by an equal amount). When the monopolist raises prices above the competitive level in order to reap his monopoly profits, customers buy less of the product, less is produced, and society as a whole is worse off. In short, monopoly reduces society’s income. The following is a simplified example. (read more)

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