From June Sekera
A year ago last May, the Real World Economics Review blog published my post, “Why Aren’t We Talking About Public Goods?” In that article I argued that we need to revive and reframe the concept of public goods. A concept of public goods is immensely important because:
- The absence of a widely-held, constructive idea of public goods in public discourse denies citizens the ability to have an informed conversation, or to make informed decisions, about things that matter mightily to the quality of their lives and their communities.
- Its absence robs public policy makers, leaders and managers of the concept that is most central to the reason for their being.
- The current economics definition of public goods feeds and supports the marketization and privatization of government, and the consequent undermining of governments’ ability to operate.
Since last May I have met with economists and other social scientists across the US and in the UK and have been in discussion with people responding to my post from several other countries. I have also been conducting further research.
In this post I summarize the results of my discussions and findings to date and offer for consideration some criteria for a possible “instrumental” definition of public goods. Ultimately, an instrumental definition of public goods must be accompanied by a concordant theory of non-market production in the public economy. Both are needed to ground an improved theory and practice of governance.
1. The Existing Definition and Its Inadequacies
Mainstream economic theory, using the sixty-year-old formulation of Paul Samuelson, holds that public goods arise out of, and represent, “market failure.” In the market-centric world of mainstream economics, public goods are pronounced “a problem” because, being “non-rivalrous” and “non-excludable, ” they are not amenable to market production.
Currently, the topic of public goods is little discussed by progressive and heterodox economists. Those attending to the topic are primarily those on the right who challenge the definition as too supportive of a role for government.
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