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IB DP Economics Study Notes

1.1.2 Scope of Economics

Economics is a multifaceted discipline that investigates how societies allocate their limited resources. This subtopic delves deeper into the nature of economic statements, the pervasive problem of scarcity, and the intricate concept of choice and opportunity cost. For a broader understanding, exploring the branches of economics can provide additional insights into how these concepts are categorised and studied.

Positive vs. Normative Economics

Economics can be dissected into two primary perspectives: positive and normative. Grasping the distinction between these two is paramount for anyone venturing into the realm of economics.

Positive Economics

  • Definition: Positive economics is concerned with objective explanations and the elucidation of economic phenomena. It seeks to describe and explain economic behaviour without making judgements about whether the outcomes are good or bad.
  • Characteristics:
    • Fact-based: Relies on observable and verifiable facts.
    • Testable: Hypotheses in positive economics can be tested and either confirmed or refuted using empirical evidence.
    • Neutral: Avoids value judgements.
  • Examples:
    • "A 10% increase in the price of petrol can lead to a 5% decrease in its consumption."
    • "Higher unemployment benefits can lead to a longer duration of unemployment."

Normative Economics

  • Definition: Normative economics revolves around value judgements about what the economy should look like or which policy actions ought to be recommended. It's more about the desirability of certain economic outcomes rather than the outcomes themselves.
  • Characteristics:
    • Subjective: Based on personal beliefs, opinions, or values.
    • Not Testable: These statements can't be tested or validated empirically in the same manner as positive statements.
  • Examples:
    • "The government ought to provide basic healthcare for all citizens."
    • "It's unjust for CEOs to earn 100 times more than their average employees."
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A summary table of positive and normative economics.

Economic Problem of Scarcity

Central to the study of economics is the omnipresent issue of scarcity. The world has finite resources, but human desires seem infinite. Understanding how externalities affect the allocation of these resources can further illuminate the challenges faced in achieving optimal distribution.

Definition of Scarcity

  • Scarcity is the fundamental economic problem where available resources are insufficient to satiate all human desires and needs. It's the gap between limited resources and theoretically limitless wants.

Implications of Scarcity

  • Limited Resources: Every society has a limited amount of resources, including land, labour, and capital.
  • Unlimited Wants: Despite limited resources, humans have an unending desire for goods and services, from basic necessities to luxury items.
  • Choices and Trade-offs: Scarcity necessitates making choices. When we opt for one thing, we're simultaneously giving up another, leading to trade-offs.
  • Competition: Scarcity often leads to competition among individuals or groups for access to limited resources.
IB Economics Tutor Tip: Understanding the distinction between positive and normative economics is crucial, as it shapes how economists interpret data and recommend policies, directly impacting real-world economic decisions.

Choice and Opportunity Cost

Owing to the dilemma of scarcity, entities — be it individuals, firms, or governments — are perpetually confronted with choices. Every choice comes with an associated cost, termed as the opportunity cost. The concept of price elasticity of demand is a crucial aspect of understanding how changes in prices affect consumer choices and, by extension, opportunity costs.

A image of choice and opportunity cost

Image courtesy of geteducated

Definition of Opportunity Cost

  • Opportunity Cost is the value of the next best alternative that one foregoes when making a choice. It's the benefits you could have received by taking an alternative action.

Significance of Opportunity Cost

  • Guiding Decisions: Opportunity cost plays a pivotal role in guiding various economic decisions. By weighing opportunity costs, one can make more informed and rational decisions.
  • Resource Allocation: It aids in discerning the trade-offs when allocating resources in diverse manners. By understanding the opportunity costs, resources can be allocated more efficiently.
  • Basis for Economic Analysis: This concept is foundational in economics, assisting in analysing the repercussions of various decisions.

Examples of Opportunity Cost

  • Personal Choices: If you opt to spend an evening studying for an economics exam instead of watching a film, the opportunity cost is the enjoyment and relaxation you forgo from not watching the film.
  • Government Decisions: If a government decides to build a hospital over a recreational park, the opportunity cost might be the health benefits foregone from not having a recreational space. The role of taxation in influencing these government decisions cannot be overstated, as it directly impacts the resources available for different projects.
  • Business Scenarios: A business that invests its funds in a new project forgoes the interest it could have earned had it deposited the funds in a bank. This foregone interest is the opportunity cost. Similarly, understanding the characteristics of public goods can help businesses and governments make more informed decisions about resource allocation and public spending.
IB Tutor Advice: When revising, focus on applying the concepts of scarcity, choice, and opportunity cost to real-world scenarios, enhancing your ability to critically analyse and answer exam questions effectively.

In navigating the vast landscape of economics, understanding the nature of economic statements, the ubiquitous challenge of scarcity, and the inherent costs in every decision we make is crucial. These foundational concepts will serve as pillars supporting your further exploration into the intricate world of economics.


Opportunity cost can be both quantifiable and non-quantifiable, depending on the context. In monetary terms, if a business chooses to invest in Project A over Project B, the opportunity cost can be quantified as the expected return from Project B that the business forgoes. However, opportunity costs aren't always monetary. For instance, the opportunity cost of a person choosing to spend time with family over working overtime might be the happiness and memories created, which are intangible and harder to quantify. While some opportunity costs can be directly measured, others are more abstract and subjective.

While normative statements are inherently based on value judgements and opinions, it doesn't mean they are entirely untestable. What makes them distinct from positive statements is that they can't be tested or validated empirically in the same direct manner. However, the outcomes or implications of policies based on normative beliefs can be observed and measured. For instance, while the statement "Wealth should be distributed more equally" is normative, if a policy is implemented based on this belief, the effects of that policy on wealth distribution can be empirically tested and analysed.

Trade-offs are inherent in decision-making, especially in a world defined by scarcity. The concept underscores the idea that resources are limited, and allocating them in one direction often means diverting them from another. Understanding trade-offs helps individuals, businesses, and governments make informed decisions by weighing the benefits and costs of different choices. In economics, recognising trade-offs means acknowledging that there's no such thing as a free lunch. Every decision has a cost, even if it's not immediately apparent. By understanding and analysing these trade-offs, economic agents can make choices that maximise their well-being or profit.

Scarcity is foundational to the study of economics. At its core, economics is about how individuals, firms, and governments make choices to allocate their limited resources to satisfy their unlimited wants. Scarcity forces these economic agents to make choices, leading to trade-offs. Without scarcity, there would be no need for choices, and thus, much of economic theory would be redundant. The omnipresent nature of scarcity, whether it's time, money, or resources, drives the need for an economic system, influences market prices, and underpins concepts like opportunity cost. Essentially, scarcity shapes the framework within which all economic decisions are made.

The distinction between positive and normative economics is crucial because it helps differentiate between statements that describe the world as it is and those that describe how it should be. Positive economics provides a foundation for empirical investigation, allowing economists to test and validate theories using real-world data. This empirical basis is essential for policy-making and understanding economic phenomena. On the other hand, normative economics brings ethical and moral dimensions into the discussion, guiding what goals society might want to achieve. By distinguishing between the two, economists can ensure that debates and discussions are clear, and that policy recommendations are based on both empirical evidence and societal values.

Practice Questions

Distinguish between positive and normative economics, providing an example for each.

Positive economics is concerned with objective explanations and descriptions of economic phenomena. It deals with "what is" or "what will be" and is based on observable and verifiable facts. For instance, a statement like "A 10% increase in the price of petrol can lead to a 5% decrease in its consumption" is a positive economic statement because it can be tested and validated using empirical data. On the other hand, normative economics revolves around value judgements about what the economy should look like or which policy actions ought to be recommended. It deals with "what ought to be". An example of a normative statement is "The government ought to provide basic healthcare for all citizens" as it's based on a value judgement and cannot be empirically tested in the same manner as positive statements.

Explain the concept of opportunity cost and illustrate with an example.

Opportunity cost represents the benefits one could have received from the next best alternative when a particular choice is made. It's essentially the cost of forgone opportunities. In the realm of economics, it's pivotal as it helps individuals, firms, and governments make informed decisions by weighing the potential benefits of different choices. For instance, if a student chooses to spend an evening studying for an economics exam instead of watching a film, the opportunity cost is the enjoyment and relaxation they forgo from not watching the film. This concept underscores the inherent trade-offs in decision-making, given the problem of scarcity.

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Written by: Dave
Cambridge University - BA Hons Economics

Dave is a Cambridge Economics graduate with over 8 years of tutoring expertise in Economics & Business Studies. He crafts resources for A-Level, IB, & GCSE and excels at enhancing students' understanding & confidence in these subjects.

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