The concept of public goods and services seems to be really hard for people to make sense of, by and large. Partly, I think, because Plain 'n' Simple Addition seems to be what's intuitive and commonsensical for most humans-- and public goods/services are more-than-additive. Partly, I think, on ideological grounds.
That's why I approached the topic through the example of paths/roads.
And that's why I'm going to spend time on other, varied examples of public goods and services.
We saw that every travel path from a location to a network of paths adds value to the entire network, as the existing network gives increased value to each added path.
Communication networks operate very similarly. The telephone system radically lowered the cost of communicating for those with phones. Every addition to the network of phones increased the value of the entire network.
In this case the approach used in the United States was to permit a monopoly-- the Bell Telephone Company-- to undertake the costly task of wiring the nation, to require it to serve rural areas that would not profit it, to permit it to profit enough overall to repay its massive investment, but to regulate its operations.
In this case, obviously, phone owners received benefits from being part of the network-- and paid for the privilege.
But those who didn't own phones also benefited. For one example-- there are many more-- lower-cost communication made goods and services in general less expensive for everyone.
And of course the phone network could propagate destructive or false information.
But the phone system was (and is) a miracle of public service. Like its predecessor and coeval, the post office.
I'd like to note that, while I have been talking about pretty solid and quantifiable benefits from communication networks, I think that a more arcane goal of connecting the people and areas of this huge and disparate nation was and is a legitimate objective of this kind of public network.
Consider what we are saying, have been saying for decades, about people and regions that feel ignored, forgotten, left behind.
As I have seen major and concerted pushes to unplug public networks that connect us, I have felt sure that division and disconnection were goals. Revealed Preference analysis at work.
We've talked about roads and safety from road-robbery. These are two of the things imperial Rome brought to a world that wouldn't have it so good again for a millennium and a half-- so let's talk about another Roman trumph of a public good -- plumbing.
It is a great cost saving to have sanitary water emerge from a tap with a mere twist, and that is best provided on a large, industrial scale. It can be efficiently provided to households by private companies, though there are issues with corporate power involved when there's monopoly or difficulty changing provider.
But the plumbing of waste removal cannot be efficiently provided on a voluntary household basis, because of the health issues involved. Waste running along city streets, waste infecting the water sources for public and private pumps, has been a major disease vector.
One household's sanitary waste disposal is a benefit to that household-- but a much, much larger benefit to that household's community.
And again-- inflows of water can bring infection or poison or heavy metals, and badly maintained waste processing channels and equipment can cause community disaster. But it is not only more efficient to supply water and waste removal on a large-scale basis-- it makes for a much smaller field to monitor for performance quality.
Though we remember Flint, and we should remember Flint, and we should have treated Flint's water as the public health emergency it is.
Yesterday I discussed public sewage systems as a public good, because we all depend on the meticulousness of neighbors where it is individual or even voluntarily market-based.
So onward to the public good of herd immunity. Anyone in a population who are 99% immune to a disease is in a population where they will encounter very few carriers of that disease, whether they are immunized or not. Every person's immunity is a benefit to themself, and a benefit to the wider community. Those who do not immunize themselves are still unlikely to become infected, if the community is sufficiently immunized.
Economists call one who enjoys the benefits of a public good or service without contributing to its maintenance a #FreeRider
. A community system can withstand some level of free-riding, and critiques of a public good or service on grounds that free-riders exist is -- not about costs and benefits. In the case of herd immunity, some in our population are immunocompromised so that immoculation is dangerous to them.
As with many sorts of public goods and services, the issues of limited ability to exclude from public benefits, and free-riding, mean that some involuntariness is involved in providing the good/service efficiently.
It is possible to reject public provision of a good/service because one values individual choice more than one values the net benefits of the good/service.
But I think that a more sensible analysis assesses all the benefits and costs of public provision, including the incidence of free-riding and incursions on individual choice.
When Chun Woo was in third grade he read an excellent book, Robert Byrd's _Electric Ben_, and I was astonished to learn that Benjamin Franklin was a genius of public good/service foundation. So I wanted to spend a few days celebrating the public goods and services he founded.
Fire prevention and the extinguishing of fires is a public service, and Franklin got the first public fire department started, though Philadelphia had evidently purchased a fire engine almost twenty years earlier.
Like infectious disease, fire readily spreads from one building to another, and this is particularly an issue in urban areas where buildings are close together. Individual choices in favor of fire-resistance and practices that prevent fire give benefits to oneself and one's neighbors. Individual choices that lead to greater incidence of fires give costs to oneself and one's neighbors.
And of course there have always been fire risks beyond human choices, like lightning.
Mutual fire associations gave assistance to members, and that assistance benefited others indirectly-- but others were excluded from the direct benefits of help in extinguishing or limiting fires.
The establishment of fire departments put staff on-call to fight fires, and while I don't know about the financing of Frankin's fire department, nowadays fire departments are most often financed through local taxes. That financing purchases and maintains supplies and equipment, and compensates firefighters to be on-call.
About twenty years ago I was hearing stories about fire departments financed on a membership basis, where fire departments would show up to burning buildings but let them burn if they didn't display a membership medallion. It occurs to me in writing this that those stories took place in areas where building density was not particularly high.
Those stories were widely greeted with some shock-- evidently for at least some people, values of community unity are among the public goods served by fire departments that serve the entire community.
But even without that-- though membership-financed fire departments can exclude non-members from the direct benefits of having fires on their property extingushed, non-members still benefit from the fire control their neighbors invest in.
Continuing a subseries on public goods and services associated with Ben Franklin, or founded by him.
I mentioned post offices briefly as an addendum to discussing telephone services and the massive investment needed to wire the nation. But despite the speed and ease of responsive conversation offered by telephones, public mail services were far more revolutionary.
For millennia, when someone wanted to send a written message, they needed to find and secure a carrier. In a town that might mean offering a small coin to a child. For longer distances it meant knowing or paying a traveler. Sea captains used to carry around bundles of mail to drop off at any ports they might visit over the next three years or so. Sea captains were probably the most reliable, barring seawreck and piracy-- they would want repeat business.
These factors led to slow, erratic delivery that served mostly the wealthy and their friends. Delivery to or from any remote or isolated location would seldom be available, usually only by special hire.
When Ben Franklin became colonial postmaster of Philadelphia
, the post office was run from the postmaster's home or place of business. He succeeded another newspaperman, and said in his autobiography, "My old competitor's newspaper declined proportionately, and I was satisfy'd without retaliating his refusal, while postmaster, to permit my papers being carried by the riders."
Ponder that for a moment. Franklin's predecessor refused to let him use the mails for his newspaper.
Though Franklin's "efficient work for a score of years had transformed the Colonial post from a losing investment into a source of revenue for the Royal government," he was dismissed n 1774. (Stamps were then purchased as a way to pay taxes on things like tea and paperwork, which had something to do with it.) Franklin was soon appointed postmaster general to the new revolutionary government.
Publicly instituted and defended mails would not become fully national until Rowland Hill instituted the penny post in Great Britain in 1840, lowering the rate for sending a half-ounce letter anywhere in that country.
A fully public postal service not only includes the people of remote, rural, and low-profit locations in a network of communication that facilitates national unity. Its low cost makes it accessible, and as a civil service it can offer better guarantees of reliable, honest delivery than lower-cost commercial delivery services can.
As Francesca Forrest said yesterday on Twitter, "I *adore* the USPS. You can send several pages of stuff to the entire US, whether it's your next town or Hawaii or Puerto Rico, for one stamp. THAT is what people can do when they decide they want to-- mail goes everywhere, regardless of politics, ethnicity, wealth, anything."
Libraries are a very interesting case of what can be proided as a public service, or on a voluntary-association basis, or on a commercial basis. The basic technological fact is that books, like many other capital items, are profoundly shareable.
Charles Homer Haskins argued that scholarly book-sharing was the foundation of the medieval universities that developed into the colleges and universities we know today.
Subsequently other groups formed assocations to pool their resources and acquire books for the group-- and eventually books became sufficiently inexpensive that entrepreneurs formed lending libraries for subscription-paying customers.
Those forms of members-only library served literate people of means, and did so well. There was little enough difficulty excluding non-paying would-be readers who had no member as a patron. What need for a public library that makes books available for no fee, then?
It depends on how one thinks about books, reading, and knowledge.
The Library Company Ben Franklin co-founded was set up to serve its members. But when Continental Congresses met in Philadelphia, the Company offered use of its books to all delegates-- presumably because they viewed the benefits of delegate knowledge as a benefit to the Company and to the general public.
In this regard the Library Company was a precursor of public libraries that are supported not only by foundation grants but by tax revenues.
And today's public libraries have become general spaces for public self-education and association, and for that matter for day shelter and often the distribution of material aid without moral enquiries or demands.
They are hopping places, and they are more profoundly trusted than any other intution I can think of offhand.
Voluntary associations and commercial lending libraries provide booksharing efficiently for those who can pay. Public libraries are premised on the idea that public knowledge and access to it are good for communities as a whole.
Most of us USians learn in the primary grades that Ben Franklin experimented with electricity; we may also have learned that he invented a lightning rod, bifocals and the Franklin stove. In fact, he was an intellectually wide-ranging Enlightenment man who interested himself in the American silk industry, astronomy, weather, the dynamics and properties of water, and pretty much anything that struck his attentive senses.
In the realms of research and invention, individual initiative and private rewards may motivate research and inventions that are kept as secrets, or licensed out under conditions of secrecy, and thus provide benefits for their originators.
But apart from the direct fruits of applying such knowledge, when knowledge is shared it is more likely to be developed quickly and surprisingly, making still more beneficial inventions and techniques socially available.
It is also directly difficult/costly to maintain the privacy of information, partiularly if one hopes to exploit its profitability.
In these regards, knowledge clearly has both private and public benefits.
Like many of the leisured and monied Enlightenment researchers of his time, Franklin preferred to make his inventions and learning available as freely as possible, specifically refusing to have the Franklin stove patented.
Franklin said “that as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours, and this we should do freely and generously.”
He understood knowledge as public services, and his ethics pointed to providing more.
Depending less on ethics and monied leisure, and thus opening research fields to wider participation, the U.S. Patent system protects private returns to patented inventions for a fixed period, to be followed by unprotected public domain. It's a balance.
Facebook posts incorporated:More examples of public goods and services: Telephones and post officePlumbingHerd immunityBen Franklin's public service innovations: The fire departmentBen Franklin's public service: The post officeBen Franklin's public service: LibrariesBen Franklin on research, invention, and knowledge