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100 ?’s for Gov’t: What public good is there in public goods?

April 20, 2013

This is Question 5 from “100 Questions for Government” series

When our perspective on our “society” was a family or clan, the idea of public goods was probably limited to a shared pot or campfire. In our modern society, the amount of public infrastructure underpinning our lives is breathtaking. Hands up if you’d like to live without:

  1. Fresh water
  2. Sewers
  3. Roads
  4. Public schools
  5. Traffic lights
  6. Public parks
  7. National forests or parks
  8. Airports
  9. Defense
  10. Law enforcement

Yes, many of these services could be privatized, and we can discuss the merits of each item later in this book, but at least some of these items should merit a “I’d like to keep that if I could.”

Without getting deeply philosophical (which you know is not my thing), if one of the items on the list holds some merit for you, you can probably see two obvious Initial Opinions

  1. There can be public good in public goods and services
  2. Maybe there’s an argument for some sort of government

If none of these items have any merit as goods or services provided by government, it might be time to put down this book and genuinely consider the potential flaws of an army populated by mercenaries with no national affiliation, National Parks run to make a profit or an education system where only the wealthy can participate.

If none of this gets you across the line, good luck protecting your assets (financial, property, intellectual, etc.) without a fully functioning, vaguely independent justice system.

As you might surmise, in a society that has evolved from city states to nation states, it seems a little counterintuitive to roll everything back to when the public goods were insignificant or non-existent. Of course, accepting the value of common infrastructure and benefits doesn’t answer the key questions of:

  1. Which of these should the government provide?
  2. Who should pay for them?

We’ll explore both of these issues at some stage but there’s an excellent chance the answer to the first question can be broken into three groups:

  1. Stuff the government should always do or control
  2. Stuff that could go either way
  3. Stuff they should stay out of

As to who foots the bill, there are really only two choices:

  1. User pays
  2. Poor users get subsidized by not so poor users

Each government and society has to determine what inalienable deliverables should be available to all citizens regardless of their circumstances (e.g education worthy of thought, cable TV not so much) and which offerings will require a financial qualification. The collective decision on this issue will say a lot about the beliefs of the people and be a key determinant of the success of that nation.

Initial Opinion:

We’ve passed the point of no return when it comes to public goods – our modern society requires so many infrastructure projects, many of which may have arguable economic merit[1], that the only solution is government sponsorship. This doesn’t give our politicians carte blanche to spend indiscriminantly, but there’s a strong possibility they should be spending on at least a few items we care about.


[1] A great opportunity for discussion one would think!

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