Government Needs To Focus On The Real Public Goods

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Posted: Jul 31, 2020 12:48 PM
Government Needs To Focus On The Real Public Goods

Source: AP Photo/Alex Brandon

I wrote last month about “anarcho-capitalists” who think we don’t need any government because markets can provide everything.

Most people, though, think that there are certain things (such as national defense and the rule of law) that are “public goods” because they won’t exist if they’re not provided by government.

Academics tell us, if we want to be rigorous, that there are two characteristics that define public goods.

  1. They are goods that people won’t buy because they can reap the benefit without paying (economists say this means the good is “non-excludable” while normal people refer to this as the free-rider problem).
  2. They are goods that can be universally shared since one person’s consumption of the good doesn’t limit another person’s consumption of the good (economists say such goods are “non-rival”).

That’s a bit wonky, so let’s consider the example of national defense.

In a world with bad countries (or, to be more accurate, a world with nations governed by bad people), there’s a risk or external aggression. Since most people wouldn’t want to be conquered – and presumably mistreated – by foreign aggressors, national defense is valuable.

But how would it be provided in the absence of government? Maybe Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos would have an incentive to cough up some cash since they have a lot of wealth to protect, but most people (including most rich people) might figure that someone else would cover the cost and they could enjoy protection for free.

This two-part series from Marginal Revolution University explains public goods, using the example of asteroid defense. Here’s an introductory video.


And here’s a follow-up version that has a bit more detail.


I’m writing about this wonky issue because the debate over public goods, at least in some quarters, also is a debate about the size of government.

Consider this image of supposed public goods.

It shows all sorts of activities where governments today play a role, but most of those things aren’t actually public goods since they can be – and sometimes are – privately provided (see examples for fire protectionmoneyroadseducationhealthair traffic control, and parks).

In other words, as Professor Tabarrok noted in the second video, something isn’t a public good just because it’s currently being handled by government.

Indeed, let’s look at the classic example of lighthouses, which often are cited as an example of something that absolutely must be provided by government. Yet scholars have found that the private sector led the way (before being supplanted by government).

For a more prudent view of public goods, Ronald Reagan’s FY1987 budget included a set of principles to help guide whether the federal government should play a role in various areas.

Those six principles could even be boiled down to one principle: Always opt for the private sector whenever possible.

I’ll close by identifying the bureaucracies in Washington that provide genuine public goods. As you can see, much of the federal government (Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Education, Department of Energy, Department of Agriculture, Department of Transportation, etc) doesn’t qualify.


To be sure, I’m using a broad-brush approach with this image. Some of the bureaucracies that I crossed out do a few things that qualify as public goods (such as nuclear weapons research at the Department of Energy), and the bureaucracies that didn’t get crossed out do lots of things (such at veterans health care) that should be in the private sector.

The bottom line is that much of the federal government isn’t needed, based on what’s a genuine public good. And for much of America’s history, at least prior to the 1930s, Washington was only a tiny burden because it was only involved in a few areas, such as national defense.

Though it’s worth noting that government could – and should – be much smaller even using an expansive definition of public goods and the role of government.