Identified by French engineer and economist Jules Dupuit (1804-1866) and later developed by English economist Alfred Marshall (1842-1924), consumer surplus theory assumes that the price paid by consumers for a good never exceeds and seldom equals the amount they are willing to pay rather than forgo the good.
In mainstream economics, economic surplus, also known as total welfare or Marshallian surplus (after Alfred Marshall), refers to two related quantities. Consumer surplus or consumers’ surplus is the monetary gain obtained by consumers because they are able to purchase a product for a price that is less than the highest price that they would be willing to pay. Producer surplus or producers’ surplus is the amount that producers benefit by selling at a market price that is higher than the least that they would be willing to sell for; this is roughly equal to profit (since producers are not normally willing to sell at a loss, and are normally indifferent to selling at a breakeven price).
In the mid-19th century, engineer Jules Dupuit first propounded the concept of economic surplus, but it was the economist Alfred Marshall who gave the concept its fame in the field of economics.
On a standard supply and demand diagram, consumer surplus is the area (triangular if the supply and demand curves are linear) above the equilibrium price of the good and below the demand curve. This reflects the fact that consumers would have been willing to buy a single unit of the good at a price higher than the equilibrium price, a second unit at a price below that but still above the equilibrium price, etc., yet they in fact pay just the equilibrium price for each unit they buy.
Likewise, in the supply-demand diagram, producer surplus is the area below the equilibrium price but above the supply curve. This reflects the fact that producers would have been willing to supply the first unit at a price lower than the equilibrium price, the second unit at a price above that but still below the equilibrium price, etc., yet they in fact receive the equilibrium price for all the units they sell.
Consumer surplus is the difference between the maximum price a consumer is willing to pay and the actual price they do pay. If a consumer is willing to pay more for a unit of a good than the current asking price, they are getting more benefit from the purchased product than they would if the price was their maximum willingness to pay. They are receiving the same benefit, the obtainment of the good, with a smaller cost as they are spending less than they would if they were charged their maximum willingness to pay. An example of a good with generally high consumer surplus is drinking water. People would pay very high prices for drinking water, as they need it to survive. The difference in the price that they would pay, if they had to, and the amount that they pay now is their consumer surplus. The utility of the first few litres of drinking water is very high (as it prevents death), so the first few litres would likely have more consumer surplus than subsequent litres.
The maximum amount a consumer would be willing to pay for a given quantity of a good is the sum of the maximum price they would pay for the first unit, the (lower) maximum price they would be willing to pay for the second unit, etc. Typically these prices are decreasing; they are given by the individual demand curve, which must be generated by a rational consumer who maximizes utility subject to a budget constraint. Because the demand curve is downward sloping, there is diminishing marginal utility. Diminishing marginal utility means a person receives less additional utility from an additional unit. However, the price of a product is constant for every unit at the equilibrium price. The extra money someone would be willing to pay for the number units of a product less than the equilibrium quantity and at a higher price than the equilibrium price for each of these quantities is the benefit they receive from purchasing these quantities. For a given price the consumer buys the amount for which the consumer surplus is highest. The consumer’s surplus is highest at the largest number of units for which, even for the last unit, the maximum willingness to pay is not below the market price.
Consumer surplus can be used as a measurement of social welfare, first shown by Willig (1976). For a single price change, consumer surplus can provide an approximation of changes in welfare. With multiple price and/or income changes, however, consumer surplus cannot be used to approximate economic welfare because it is not single-valued anymore. More modern methods are developed later to estimate the welfare effect of price changes using consumer surplus.
The aggregate consumers’ surplus is the sum of the consumer’s surplus for all individual consumers. This can be represented graphically as shown in the above graph of the market demand and supply curves. It can also be said to be the maxim of satisfaction a consumer derives from particular goods and services.
Calculation of a change in consumer surplus
The change in consumer surplus is used to measure the changes in prices and income. The demand function used to represent an individual’s demand for a certain product is essential in determining the effects of a price change. An individual’s demand function is a function of the individual’s income, the demographic characteristics of the individual, and the vector of commodity prices. When the price of a product changes, the change in consumer surplus is measured as the negative value of the integral from the original actual price (P0) and the new actual price (P1) of the demand for product by the individual. If the change in consumer surplus is positive, the price change is said to have increased the individuals welfare. If the price change in consumer surplus is negative, the price change is said to have decreased the individual’s welfare.
Distribution of benefits when price falls
When supply of a good expands, the price falls (assuming the demand curve is downward sloping) and consumer surplus increases. This benefits two groups of people: consumers who were already willing to buy at the initial price benefit from a price reduction, and they may buy more and receive even more consumer surplus; and additional consumers who were unwilling to buy at the initial price will buy at the new price and also receive some consumer surplus.
Consider an example of linear supply and demand curves. For an initial supply curve S0, consumer surplus is the triangle above the line formed by price P0 to the demand line (bounded on the left by the price axis and on the top by the demand line). If supply expands from S0 to S1, the consumers’ surplus expands to the triangle above P1 and below the demand line (still bounded by the price axis). The change in consumer’s surplus is difference in area between the two triangles, and that is the consumer welfare associated with expansion of supply.
Some people were willing to pay the higher price P0. When the price is reduced, their benefit is the area in the rectangle formed on the top by P0, on the bottom by P1, on the left by the price axis and on the right by line extending vertically upwards from Q0.
The second set of beneficiaries are consumers who buy more, and new consumers, those who will pay the new lower price (P1) but not the higher price (P0). Their additional consumption makes up the difference between Q1 and Q0. Their consumer surplus is the triangle bounded on the left by the line extending vertically upwards from Q0, on the right and top by the demand line, and on the bottom by the line extending horizontally to the right from P1.
The satisfaction derived from the good is greater than that derived from products given up in making the purchase; thus, the consumer receives a surplus in satisfaction in excess of the price paid for the good.
Also see: cost benefit analysis, price discrimination, social welfare function, compensation principle