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What is rationing in economics?

AS, A-Level, IB
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB, Eduqas, WJEC

Last updated 13 Jul 2023

In economics, rationing refers to the allocation of scarce goods or resources among competing individuals or groups. Rationing typically occurs when the demand for a particular good or resource exceeds its available supply. It is a mechanism used to ensure a fair and equitable distribution of limited resources during times of scarcity or crisis.

Rationing can happen through various methods:

  1. Price Rationing: In a market economy, prices are often used as a rationing mechanism. When the supply of a good is limited, its price increases, which can help to reduce demand and allocate the available quantity to those who are willing and able to pay the higher price. This is the rationing function of the price mechanism.
  2. Non-price Rationing: In situations where price rationing is not feasible or desirable, non-price mechanisms are employed. These mechanisms can include:
    • Coupons or vouchers: Individuals are given coupons or vouchers that entitle them to purchase a specific quantity of the scarce good.
    • Waiting lists: People are placed on waiting lists, and the good or service is allocated based on priorities or a predetermined order. An example might be waiting lists for NHS treatment in the UK.
    • Quotas: A fixed quantity of the good or resource is allocated to each individual or group.
    • Ration cards: Individuals are issued ration cards that entitle them to a specified amount of the good or resource within a given time period. These were used in the UK during the Second World War.

Now, let's look at some real-world examples of rationing:

  1. War Rationing: During times of war, governments often implement rationing systems to ensure the equitable distribution of essential goods like food, fuel, and clothing. For example, during World War II, many countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, implemented rationing programs to manage scarce resources.
  2. Energy Rationing: In situations where there is an energy crisis or shortage, governments may implement energy rationing measures. For instance, during the oil crises in the 1970s, some countries introduced restrictions on gasoline consumption and implemented rationing programs to control fuel usage.
  3. Water Rationing: In regions experiencing severe drought or water scarcity, water rationing may be implemented to manage the available water supply. This can involve restrictions on water usage for domestic, agricultural, or industrial purposes.
  4. Healthcare Rationing: In healthcare systems where resources are limited, there may be instances of healthcare rationing. This can involve prioritizing certain medical treatments or procedures based on factors such as medical need, cost-effectiveness, or the potential to save lives.

It's worth noting that rationing is often considered a temporary measure implemented during exceptional circumstances. It aims to ensure the equitable distribution of scarce resources until the supply-demand balance is restored or alternative solutions are found.

Rationing can be a controversial issue, as it can lead to inequities in the distribution of goods and services. However, it can also be a necessary tool for ensuring that everyone has access to essential goods and services.

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