Artificial Scarcity

Artificial scarcity describes the scarcity of items even though the technology and production capacity exists to create an abundance. The term is aptly applied to non-rival resources, i.e. those that do not diminish due to one person’s use, although there are other resources which could be categorized as artificially scarce. The most common causes are monopoly pricing structures, such as those enabled by intellectual property rights or by high fixed costs in a particular marketplace. The inefficiency associated with artificial scarcity is formally known as a deadweight loss.

An example of artificial scarcity is often used when describing proprietary, or closed-source, computer software. Any software application can be easily duplicated billions of times over for a relatively cheap production price (an initial investment in a computer, an internet connection, and any power consumption costs; and these are already fixed costs in most environments). On the margin, the price of copying software is next to nothing, costing only a small amount of power and a fraction of a second. Things like serial numbers, license agreements, and intellectual property create artificial scarcity, and give monetary value to otherwise free copies. Technocrats argue that if the price system were removed, there would be no personal incentive to artificially create scarcity in products, and thus something similar to the open source model of distribution would dominate.

With nearly all goods, a trade-off occurs when decisions are made about production. Because leather boots consume resources, a trade-off is noticed between running shoes and boots; i.e. in order to produce more boots one has to produce fewer running shoes because of limited resources. With computer software, no significant trade-off occurs. To produce more of a certain piece of digital information, since virtually no resources are used to copy the information there is no trade-off with the production of other things, like shoes and boots. In essence, problems of artificial scarcity usually arise when a good that was once scarce becomes abundant due to extreme increases in productivity and technology.

‘If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.’

In a market economic system, an abundance is not produced because excess product is considered an inefficient use of resources; those resources could be used elsewhere to produce something in greater demand to fulfill more wants. A paradox is reached with artificially scarce products, as an abundance is possible, yet without creating scarcity via legal or coercive means, there is minimal profitability for the creator (or the distributor) of the product. If scarcity is allowed to reach zero, the economic model is irrelevant. If natural scarcity no longer exists, scarcity has to be created to ensure a price system of supply and demand.

Artificial scarcities are said to be necessary to promote the development of goods. In the example of digital information, it may be free to copy information ad infinitum, but it requires a significant investment to develop the information in the first place. In the example of the drug industry, production of drugs is fairly cheap to execute on a large scale, but new drugs are very expensive. This is because the initial investment to develop a drug is generally billions of dollars, due to strict regulation. Typically drug companies have profit margins much higher than this initial investment, but the high payoff also attracts many companies to compete, increasing the pace of drug development. A feature of many economies is also time limit in patent rights; after a set number of years enjoying an artificial scarcity, the patent wears off and cheap generic versions of a product enter the market. Thus, the drug developer gets a return on investment, and other companies subsequently compete to lower prices.

There are examples, however, where the development of goods was present without artificial scarcity, particularly with the free software movement (e.g. Firefox, Linux, and Audacity). Additionally, many copyrighted works have been created under the Creative Commons license.

Copyright, grants authors a limited monopoly to copy and distribute their works. These protections are in place to prevent market failure, artificially preserve profits for producers, or artificially reduce costs for a certain group. Therefore, a state of complete abundance will crash any market economy.

In the absence of artificial scarcity, businesses and individuals would create tools based on their own need (demand). For example, if a business had a strong need for a voice recognition program, they would pay to have the program developed to suit their needs. The business would profit not on the program, but on the resulting boost in efficiency caused by the program. The subsequent abundance of the program would lower operating costs for the developer as well as other businesses using the new program.

Lower costs for businesses result in lower prices in the competitive free market. Lower prices from suppliers would also raise profits for the original developer. In abundance, businesses would continue to pay to improve the program to best suit their own needs, and increase profits. Over time, the original business makes a return on investment, and the final consumer has access to a program that suits their needs better than any one program developer can predict. This is one common rationale behind open-source software.

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