The Public Good

Public good. We all hear the phrase but I fear that we do not all understand the concept and readily confuse public benefits with public goods. To start with just what is a public good? Paul A. Samuelson, the first economist to develop the theory of public goods, said, “goods which all enjoy in common in the sense that each individual’s consumption of such a good leads to no subtractions from any other individual’s consumption of that good.” The opposite of a public good is a private good.Public goods like air, water, fish, game animals are normally referred to as common goods reserving the term ‘public goods’ to services provided by the government such as national defense, the police and judicial system, prisons systems, and as most people like to include the highway systems and education systems. I will get back to these last two in a short while.

A public good is a good from which you cannot exclude anyone the use of, it is also a good that no mater how much one person uses it their use will not diminish what is available for use for other users. The former is called non-excludability, and the later is referred to as non-rivalness. Most people readily grasp excludability but rival may need a bit of explaining, in economics, a good is considered either rivalrous (rival) or nonrival. Rival goods are goods whose consumption by one consumer prevents simultaneous consumption by other consumers.

Most goods fall into the rival class, things like nails, hammers, cars, houses, apples, etc. are all rival good in that as soon as one is used there is less for other to use, and the supply and demand law applies to their consumption. Goods like television programming and radio broadcasts are example of non-rival goods.

Now to go back to our understanding of public goods as provided by the government. National defense has both the non-excludability and non-rivalness components to its aspect. You cannot deny anyone in the country the benefits of having a strong national defense, nor does an increases in the population reduce the availability of the national defense. The same is true for the police and judicial system, and as well for the prisons systems. These are goods that provide the same benefit to each citizen regardless to his ability to contribute to the support of the goods being provided.

Economical public goods should not be confuses what people like to call “the public good”, this expression contains a collective ethical notion of “the good” used to influence political decision-making.

With this understanding of a public good it is easily seen that there cannot be very many of them, but the attempts of many to broaden the concept is relentless. It has been long accepted that the highway systems and K-12 education are public goods, and now there is a strong push to include health care as a public good as well. I will well agree that these things are public benefits but would contest the idea that they can be classified as public goods. What then, you ask, is a public benefit as opposed to a public good? A public benefit is public only in that the government provides it to certain classes of citizens at public expense, and is neither non-excludability nor non-rivalness except as government dictate.

First let us consider the federal highway systems. They are non-excludable in that anyone with a vehicle can use them, however they do exclude predestines for the most part. They also exclude anyone not living in the area their use; a person in North Carolina cannot drive on the highways in New York. They are not non-rival as anyone who tries to drive on almost any major highways during rush hour can attest. As drivers crowd upon the highway the highway become less and less usable until gridlock is achieved.

Thus the federal highway system is a benefit provided for local use by public funds taken from all over the nation. There is no overwhelming need for the roads to be public; they could all be private toll roads and provide the same service at local expense instead of making the people in the lower 48 pay for bridges to no where in Alaska. An argument could be made for a national defense highway system being a public good, in fact that is how Eisenhower sold the Interstate system, but a national defense highway system does not entail all the state and county roads, which could all be private without impeding the commerce of the nation.

Now let us consider K-12 as a public good. By law it is non-excludability, and because government expands the government schools as necessary with increasing students they are a non-rival good, but are the goods shared equally by the people of the nation like they are with the national defense? The answer is an unequivocally no!

The problem with making K-12 a public good is that it puts the government in total control of the primary education of our children. Now tell me, just how many things does the government do well? Well education is not one of them. To start with they put a union of teachers in charge who have their own interest more to heart then the interest of the children. The government gets to decide on the curriculum regardless of what the parents may think, and if the parents do not go along with the government’s concept of what is right the parents go to jail.

Well then, send you children to private schools and avoid the intrusions of the government, yeah how? The government regulates private schools and set their basic curriculum as well. Home schooling is the only way to avoid government’s control over your child’s education, and, as you know from recent Court decisions, that is under attack by the government.

Going back to the public good of K-12, so what if a child get a good education from a government school? Some do I hear. How does that child’s education provide a good equally shared by the nation and state? It does not, it provide, at best, a local benefit at state and national expense. Only if the education of this child results in some great contribution, such as a cure for cancer or a new source of energy, can it be clamed that his education was good for the nation instead of just a good for his hometown. This is another example of a public benefit paid for by people who will in no way ever benefit from his education. The people who never had children, the people who sent their children to private schools, the people who’s children have long ago grown, as well as those living in different localities all foot the bill for this child’s education and receive nothing for their effort.

If not a public good, then who’s good is a K-12 education, and who should bear the cost of providing that education? The child and parents are the primary benefactors, with the local community running a close second. Until recently these are the one to whom the expense of a K-12 education fell, that was back in the day that education worked a whole lot better then it does now. Local property taxes paid for the schools, there was no federal money driving school polices, and if a parent wanted a better education for his child he was free to send them to a private school or move into a school district that had better schools. It used to be that the quality of the schools was a major concern for parents when looking for a place to buy a home, but the government screwed that up with forced busing, now you never know where your child may end up going to school even if there is a school right across the street.

Because some parents could afford better schools for their children then other people could this was deemed evil because of the inequality by the courts and new funding schemes were forced upon the states. A drive to increase the money spend upon educating our children succeed wildly, in my lifetime the average per child expenditure has gone from under a $1000 per child in the class room per year to well over $18,000 per child, this far out stripe the rate of inflation, with the main results of teacher salaries going out the roof (how they can still maintain they are under paid is beyond me), and the quality of the education going into the cellar. The dropout rate has increased to nearly 50 percent in many cities, and many graduating with very little ability to read and write, let along do higher math.

This all is my opinion a direct result of the classification of K-12 as a public good and if we let the government classify health care as a public good we can expect much of the same for its future. Anything that is a public good is no longer a private good, and as such no individual is in charge of its well being and often results in what is called Tragedy of the Commons. This involves a conflict over the finite resources between individual interests and the common good. When you give free access and have unrestricted demand for a finite resource ultimately this will dooms the resource through over-exploitation.

As the K-12 system is now structured we are trying to give every child the same education, but we do not have the capability to do this, our supply of good teachers is limited, the student who want to learn are forced to sit in the same room with the same rowdies who want nothing more then to disrupt the class, and get out as soon as possible, severely limiting the ability of the teachers to educate. The government’s requirement for test passing requires the teacher to concentrate upon what is necessary to pass the test, thus if it is not on the test it does not get taught.

If K-12 was reassign as a privet good, like a collage education, albeit there is a great drive to convert a collage education from a privet good into a public good, and let the consumers of the education sort it out, letting schools expel children who disrupt classes with no recourse but to find another school or drop out, allow the brighter children to be taught at a different level then the slower ones (I would have fallen in the latter group), let the local systems be paid for by the local users, and the curriculum decided upon locally the system would serve society much better then what we have now.

This post was inspired by D. Lee, and as he would say, “There you have it.”

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] The more money that the government makes available to those seeking an education, the higher the cost of that education becomes. I do not owe those students anything, nor does any taxpayer, why should the taxpayer be required to pay for a private benifit. They will argue that it is a ‘Public Good’, but a public good is a good from which you cannot exclude anyone the use of, it is also a good that no matter how much one person uses it their use will not diminish what is available for use for other users. Go here for a longer explanation of what a Public Good consists: […]

  2. […] The more money that the government makes available to those seeking an education, the higher the cost of that education becomes.  I do not owe those students anything, nor does any taxpayer, why should the taxpayer be required to pay for a private benifit.  They will argue that it is a ‘Public Good’, but a  public good is a good from which you cannot exclude anyone the use of, it is also a good that no matter how much one person uses it their use will not diminish what is available for use for other users.  Go here for a longer explanation of what a Public Good consists: […]


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