The “Public Goods” Myth

The argument for the provision of public goods by the state goes like this:

People will free ride on a public good like a clean atmosphere because they can benefit from it without contributing to it. Mimi will enjoy more breathable air when others switch to a Prius even if she doesn’t drive one herself. So the state is justified as a means of forcing people like Mimi to contribute: for instance, by creating laws that penalize pollution….

Standard models predict that public goods will be underprovided because of free riding. Public goods are non-excludable, meaning that you cannot be excluded from enjoying them even if you didn’t contribute to them. Public goods are also non-rivalrous, meaning that my enjoyment of the good doesn’t subtract from yours. Here’s an example. A storm threatens to flood the river, a flood that would destroy your town. If the townspeople join together to build a levee with sandbags, the town will be spared. However, your individual contribution won’t make or break the effort. The levee is a public good. If it prevents the flood, your house will be saved whether or not you helped stack the sandbags. And the levee will protect the entire town, so protecting your house doesn’t detract from the protection afforded to other houses.

It’s typically assumed that people won’t voluntarily contribute to public goods like the levee. Your individual contribution is inconsequential, and if the levee does somehow get provided, you enjoy its protection whether or not you helped. You get the benefit without paying the costs. So the self-interested choice is to watch Netflix on your couch while your neighbors hurt their backs lugging sandbags around. The problem is, your neighbors have the exact same incentive to stay home— if enough others contribute to the levee, they’ll enjoy the benefits whether or not they contributed themselves. Consequently, no one has an incentive to contribute to the levee. As a result of this free-rider problem, the town will flood even though the flood is bad for everyone. [Christopher Freiman, Unequivocal Justice, 2017]

The idea is that private entities won’t provide certain things because there will be too many free riders. And yet, people do buy Priuses and similar cars, and do volunteer in emergencies, and do commit myriad acts of kindness and generosity without compensation (other than psychic). These contrary and readily observable facts should be enough to discredit public-goods theory. But I shall continue with a critical look at key terms and assumptions.

What is a public good? It’s a good that’s “underprovided”. What does that mean? It means that someone who believes that a certain good should be provided in a certain quantity at a certain price is dissatisfied with the actual quantity and/or price at which the good is provided (or not provided).

Who is that someone? Whoever happens to believe that a certain good should be provided at a certain price. Or, more likely, that it should be provided “free” by government. There are many advocates of universal health care, for example, who are certain that health care is underprovided, and that it should be made available freely to anyone who “needs” it. They are either ignorant of the track record of socialized medicine in Canada and Britain, or are among the many (usually leftists) who prefer hope to experience.

What is a free rider, and why is it bad to be a free rider? A free rider is someone who benefits from the provision and use of goods for which he (the free rider) doesn’t pay. There are free riders all around us, all the time. Any product, service, or activity that yields positive externalities is a boon to many persons who don’t buy the product or service, or engage in the activity. (Follow the link in the preceding sentence for a discussion and examples of positive externalities.) But people do buy products and services that yield positive externalities, and companies do stay in business by provide such products and services.

In sum, “free rider” is a scare term invoked for the purpose of justifying government-provided public goods. Why government-provided? Because that way the goods will be “free” to many users of them, and “the rich” will be taxed to provide the goods, of course. (“Free” is an illusion. See this.)

Health care — which people long paid for out of their own pockets or which was supported by voluntary charity — is demonstrably not a public good. If anything, the more that government has come to dominate the provision of health care (including its provision through insurance), the more costly it has become. The rising cost has served to justify greater government involvement in health care, which has further driven up the cost, etc., etc., etc. That’s what happens when government provides a so-called public good.

What about defense? As I say here,

given the present arrangement of the tax burden, those who have the most to gain from defense and justice (classic examples of “public goods”) already support a lot of free riders and “cheap riders.” Given the value of defense and justice to the orderly operation of the economy, it is likely that affluent Americans and large corporations — if they weren’t already heavily taxed — would willingly form syndicates to provide defense and justice. Most of them, after all, are willing to buy private security services, despite the taxes they already pay….

… It may nevertheless be desirable to have a state monopoly on police and justice — but only on police and justice, and only because the alternatives are a private monopoly of force, on the one hand, or a clash of warlords, on the other hand.

The environment? See this. Global warming? See this, and follow the links therein.

All in all, the price of “free” government goods is extremely high; government taketh away far more than it giveth. With a minimal government restricted to the defense of citizens against force and fraud there would be far fewer people in need of “public goods” and far, far more private charity available to those few who need it.


Related posts:
A Short Course in Economics
Addendum to a Short Course in Economics
Monopoly: Private Is Better than Public
Voluntary Taxation
What Free-Rider Problem?
Regulation as Wishful Thinking
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
More about Merit Goods
Don’t Just Stand There, “Do Something”

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