Public Goods: A Question of Balance

In economics, a public good is a good that is both non-excludable and non-rivalrous in that individuals cannot be effectively excluded from use and where use by one individual does not reduce availability to others.”

From Wikipedia, Public Goods

I believe this standard definition of public goods assumes something most definitely not in evidence: Whether a given “public good” actually is a “good” to all those affected by its existence. In any state of human affairs there will always be those for whom a given good is, on balance, not “good”, however non-rivalrous and non-excludable it may be.

Let us consider that old favourite example of ‘The Roads’, which in a given case are far from “good” in the estimation of the farmer or the owner of a nature preserve whose land is taken under Eminent Domain against his will. The former property owner, whose land was taken from him by force of law and threat of punishment, may not be excluded from using that land in its new role as a road, but he is certainly precluded from using it as he would prefer. On balance, for him this road is not a “good” at all, not even if it means a quicker trip to St. Louis or Seattle. And it is not only the former owner for whom the road is not necessarily a “good” on balance. Anyone who lives near it, within sight or sound of it, may find it a dreadful incursion on his view, or on his peace and quiet, or even on the relative unlikelihood of his being burglarized or murdered by itinerants using it.


Or take education. Now if a man says “education is a public good” without making any specifications whatsoever as to what he means, he might get by with that simply because, absent specification, people will mostly interpret “education” in some sense already in line with what they want it to mean or believe it means. But speaking of the real world rather than of abstract umbrella terms, education takes place only in specific instances, in concrete times and places and circumstances. If one is speaking of any education other than self-education, it is not non-excludable, since there are always entrance requirements that must be met and rules of conduct which must be followed if the “non-excludable” student is not to find himself excluded. And since time and resources are finite, not everyone can be accommodated in any given learning environment (not even that of the ad hoc pub discussion among friends or the meeting of the book club), hence attendance at the “school” is far from non-rivalrous: some who would participate are accepted, some are not. So in the real world education does not meet the requirements for being a “public good” because of the excludable and rivalrous nature of nearly all establishments providing it. Neither is education a “good” in the minds of members of the public when what is taught is in their judgment untrue or perverse. (How many of us are in love with the leftist/socialist/fascist drivel taught in colleges and high-schools and even right down to kindergarten? Do we consider this education a “good”?)

A final, and very specific, example: The Watts Towers in Los Angeles, constructed as a hobby by Simon Rodia, an Italian immigrant, over the course of decades. After his death there was a big brouhaha, because Los Angeles had condemned the property, and some Angeleños thought it an eyesore and wanted it torn down instanter, whereas others admired it either as a work of art or as a piece of local history or — maybe — even because they believed in property rights. So are the Watts Towers a “public good” because they are non-excludable and non-rivalrous? Or do they fail to be one because not everyone considers them a “good” in the first place?

Actually, the only “public goods” that I can even make a case for are breathable air (not very toxic beyond the extent that Nature provides anyway), reasonably safe drinking water, and some reasonably hygienic ways of disposing of sewage and other toxic waste. Aside from these, the proper functions of government — protection of individuals’ persons and their property — may be legitimate “public goods”. But this is really an abstract idea, and the devil and any “public good” derived from it, is in the details.


  1. The normal examples of “public goods” are indeed clearly wrong.

    Poisoned air and water supplies were not result of “selfish private property” they were the result of the state refusing to enforce the traditional Common Law rights in air and water supplies against the tort of poisoning these supplies – the Wensleydale judgement of 1865 (“St Helens versus Tipping”), or the judgement of Wilkes in “Hole V Barlow” (1858)
    “Necessities may arise for an interference with the common law right of clean air pro bono publico……….. private convenience must yield to public necessity”, with Judge Wensleydale the excuse was “Where great works have been created and carried on, and are the means of developing the national wealth, you must not stand on extreme rights and allow a person to say “I will bring an action against you for this and that and so on” Business could not go on if this were so” (the 1865 judgement).

    Of course business could go on – but it would be more expensive to respect private property rights in air and water supplies (not “pro bono publico” Judge Tipping – as this was a PRIVATE right under Common Law as all rights are PRIVATE under Common Law, you foolish man).

    In Scotland privately owned rivers were not polluted – and Crown owned ones were, this is not “rocket science” as the modern saying goes.

    The late conservative M.J. Oakeshott (to whom I owe the above quotations – they are from his “”On Human Conduct” 1975, page 296) thought this was a Francis Bacon view of law (making nature yield what it has a never yielded) as opposed to what he thought Thomas Hobbes thought law to be (keeping the peace) – Oakeshott utterly failed to see that Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes (the former secretary of Francis Bacon) had the SAME view of law – that it was just the unlimited will of the ruler or rulers with no private rights at all.

    Still I have written on this extensively elsewhere (indeed only yesterday I wrote something on it – but “Counting Cats” collapsed for some reason, and what I wrote was lost).

    I must go on.

    “Public Goods” – “lighthouses”, “roads”, “drainage””……..

    There are many historical examples of private (voluntary) action providing these things – and in the case of lighthouses and rescue boats (the RNLI) the much pushed “Free Rider” problem proved not to be a problem – as the people providing these things were NOT after monetary profit.

    People such as Edwin Chadwick (and J.S. Mill – the most overrated liberal in history, the late Ayn Rand was correct about him) were just WRONG when they said that the state (national or local) “must” provide X, Y, Z. as was their master Jeremy Bentham (who also held the Bacon-Hobbes view of an absolute state with no such thing as private rights or natural justice to stand against the Positivist “law” of the state).

    To me the “hard problem” is defence – war, invasion and so on.

    The spirit of the state (of the Sword of State) is force – violence. This is not the spirit of voluntary action – of civil society.

    I find Murray Rothbard style “history” of voluntary action defeating government armies utterly unconvincing (but then I find much Rothbardian “history”, outside the history of economic thought itself, to be nonsense).

    This does NOT mean that anarcho capitalists can not solve the military problem – that one day there will not be mighty battle fleets of space ships belonging to great capitalist enterprises, able to pound planets to dust.

    But the problem is not yet solved and talking vaguely about “protection agencies” or “partisans” or “militia”.

    War and death is often not optional – it takes one side (not two) to make war.

    If a community can not defend itself (or have another power to defend it – as first Britain and then the United States have defended nations for so many years, nations that boast of their lack of military forces not understanding that they are in fact PARASITES) against invasion then it will be exterminated or enslaved.

    I say again that I am NOT saying that the problem can not be solved – but it has not been solved yet.

    For example in battle if a private property owners says “you can not put your artillery here” one still has to just that – or LOSE (and that property owner loses as well).

    Here Judge Wilkes and Judge Wensleydale had a point – not the economic point they thought they had (their economics was false), but a MILITARY point.

    If private rights are allowed to stand against military necessity then the result is extermination or enslavement – including for the private property owner whose rights have been respected by his own side (when he dementedly tries to block military action), but which will not be respected by the enemy.

    “But to violate private property is evil” – did I say that it was not evil?

    But it may be the lesser evil – if the alternative is the victory of the enemy (who will respect private property rights even less).

    I say for the third time that I am NOT saying that this problem can not be solved – just that it has not been solved yet.



  2. As for “public education” in the United States.

    In the start it was not claimed that children would not be taught to read and write (and so on) if the state did not get involved – the lie that they would not be came much later.

    The reason that supporters of government education (such as Sam Adams) came out with at the start was the need to teach religion and morals – which they feared would not be taught as they wished them to be taught (it is often forgotten that American government schools have only really been “secular” since the end of the 1940s – before then they were really Protestant schools, which is why Roman Catholics tended to send their children to Church Schools)

    In such things as the Constitution of New Hampshire (1784) the need to teach “religion” is openly stated (although by locally tax supported churches rather than by a formal system of public schools – although these churches had an education role for children) – by the early 19th century (the work of H. Mann in Mass and such things as the Declaration of Independence of Texas from the Mexican military dictatorship) the talk was of the need to teach “morality” – and that “political science” had proved that “free institutions” (elected government) could not survive without a “system of public schools”.

    Since the end of the 1940s (due to Supreme Court judgements and so on) American schools have passionately NOT about teaching “religion” or conservative morality – quite the contrary. And the decline of the locally elected school board (the “consolidation” movement to bigger and bigger areas under the control of “professionals” and “experts” not the people the parents elect in a local community) dates from the start of the 20th century.

    Ironically all the leading supporters of “the public schools” in American history would now OPPOSE the system – as it teaches the opposite of what they wanted the “public schools” to teach (essentially the American government schools teach moral relativism – what the supporters of the “public schools” in the 19th century would have called “vice”).

    It is indeed one of the ironies of history.

    What was intended to support religion and conservative morality (not the same thing of course) has been turned by the Progressives into a lethal weapon against both.

    “How can the public schools be reformed?”

    They can not be reformed – until American conservatives get that into their minds (till they understand that TAXATION is not the way to spread either religion or good morals – that the attempt to do that will lead to the exact OPPOSITE being taught) then there is no hope.



  3. More great info, Paul.

    And I’ve read that not all the world’s dykes and levees were initially governmental projects. I daresay most people would call these “public goods,” in common parlance if not in technical econspeak, but it does not follow that they must be undertaken by government.

    As a matter of fact, when I was a girl there some sort of natural drainage problem that caused quite a large area, including parts of several of the local farmers’ fields on both sides of the highway, to develop “wet spots” where the water would neither sink in nor run off when there was a reasonably healthy rain. The result of these wet spots is that crops have a tough time growing and not rotting in them, and that tractors (or horses and wagons or ploughs for that matter) have a nasty tendency to become stuck in the mud.

    Grandpa and the other men did not call the County to do something about it. They did not issue demands to the Army Corps of Engineers. They just got together and decided they would all have to chip in a bit of lucre and a lot of labor and fix the problem themselves.

    Maintaining the land in an arable condition is another thing that those affected want…it is close to a “public good” in the technical sense, in that few people really mind if Farmer Jones manages to dry out his land enough to grow more corn.

    But it is not something that “only the government can do.”



    1. Quite so Julie. If the taxpayer is going to pick of the bill for flood defences of course landowners will agree to that (they would be foolish not to) – but if landowners know that the taxpayers are not going to pay the bill, they (the landowners) will pay. Of course modern government regulations often do not ALLOW landowners to effectively defend their land.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s