Civilizing the Economy A New Economics of Provision

Scarcity in Economics

Posted Oct 19, 2010 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, 3 Comments

One of the key ideas in modern economics is the idea of scarcity.  In fact, sometimes economics is defined as the “allocation of resources in the context of scarcity.”

Scarcity means that there is not enough to go around.  If everyone had access to everything they desire, there would be no economics.  There would be no need to determine how to allocate resources. At least that is one view of the field of economics. This notion of scarcity, however, is a bit more complicated than it might appear.

For example, in the development of the Atlantic trade in early capitalism, the trading of tobacco created wealth for Adam Smith’s Scotland.  It was shipped from the slave colonies of Virginia and Maryland to Scotland and then sold to people on the European continent.  Before tobacco was introduced on the continent, of course, there was no scarcity of tobacco.  They were just fine without it.  In fact, as we now know, tobacco is a serious health hazard.  So it seems one can safely assume that the tobacco merchants manufactured the desire for tobacco, though advertizing and other means.  Once people wanted tobacco, then an economics of tobacco could develop based on the scarcity of tobacco.

On the other hand, there was a real scarcity of labor to work on the tobacco plantations.  There were not enough indentured servants or free laborers to do the work for the plantation owners to reap the full benefit of their investment in the plantations.  This scarcity, however, did not mean higher wages to attract tobacco workers; instead it involved enslaving millions of Africans.

Slavery, in other words, is just as much a feature of capitalism as advertizing—they just function on different ends of the life of a product.  The scarcity of labor means the enslavement of people.   The need for a scarcity of commodities requires extensive advertizing. If you want to understand capitalism, there are few better places to start than the tobacco trade in the eighteenth century.  Adam Smith knew this story, but refused to tell it.  We need to know it and to tell it now.

3 Responses to “Scarcity in Economics”

  1. CNA Training says:

    November 10, 2010 at 12:13 am

    I’ve recently started a blog, the information you provide on this site has helped me tremendously. Thank you for all of your time & work.
  2. Harry Patel says:

    November 18, 2010 at 6:55 am

    what is the scarcity may be the single most siginificant word in the field if econimics?
  3. Marvin Brown says:

    November 18, 2010 at 8:33 am

    Scarcity refers to the limited supply of some good, which means that not is not available to everyone.

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Marvin T. Brown, Ph.D teaches business and organizational ethics at the University of San Francisco and Saybrook University in San Francisco.

This book is the culmination of 30 years of teaching and writing on business and society from a communicative perspective. Visit for more information.

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