Public finance is a field of economics concerned with paying for collective or governmental activities, and with the administration and design of those activities. The field is often divided into questions of what the government or collective organizations should do or are doing, and questions of how to pay for those activities. The broader term (public economics) and the narrower term (government finance) are also often used.
"Market failure" occurs when private markets do not allocate goods or services efficiently. The existence of market failure provides an efficiency-based rationale for collective or governmental provision of goods and services. Externalities, public goods, informational advantages, strong economies of scale, and network effects can cause market failures. Public provision via a government or a voluntary association, however, is subject to other inefficiencies, termed "government failure."
Under broad assumptions, government decisions about the efficient scope and level of activities can be efficiently separated from decisions about the design of taxation systems (Diamond-Mirlees separation). In this view, public sector programs should be designed to maximize social benefits minus costs (cost-benefit analysis), and then revenues needed to pay for those expenditures should be raised through a taxation system that creates the fewest efficiency losses caused by distortion of economic activity as possible. In practice, government budgeting is substantially more complicated and often results in inefficient practices.
Government can pay for spending by borrowing (borrowing), although borrowing is a method of distributing tax burdens through time rather than a replacement for taxes. A deficit is the difference between government spending and revenues. The accumulation of deficits over time is the total public debt. Deficit finance allows governments to smooth tax burdens over time, and gives governments an important fiscal policy tool. Deficits can also narrow the options of successor governments.
Public finance is closely connected to issues of income distribution and social equity. Governments can reallocate income through transfer payments or by designing tax systems that treat high-income and low-income households differently.
The "Public Choice" approach to public finance seeks to explain how self-interested voters, politicians, and bureaucrats actually operate, rather than how they should operate.
Government financing can be achieved by taxes, government borrowing, asset sales, or seigniorage. How a government chooses to finance its activities can have important effects on the distribution of income and wealth (income redistribution) and on the efficiency of markets (effect of taxes on market prices and efficiency). The issue of how taxes affect income distribution is closely related to tax incidence, which examines the distribution of tax burdens after market adjustments are taken into account. Public finance research also analyzes effects of the various types of taxes and types of borrowing as well as administrative concerns, such as tax enforcement.
As the government represents the people, government debt can be seen as an indirect debt of the taxpayers. Government debt can be categorized as internal debt, owed to lenders within the country, and external debt, owed to foreign lenders. Governments usually borrow by issuing securities such as government bonds and bills. Less creditworthy countries sometimes borrow directly from commercial banks or international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank.
Most government budgets are calculated on a cash basis, meaning that revenues are recognized when collected and outlays are recognized when paid. Some consider all government liabilities, including future pension payments and payments for goods and services the government has contracted for but not yet paid, as government debt. This approach is called accrual accounting, meaning that obligations are recognized when they are acquired, or accrued, rather than when they are paid.
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