Myth: Markets cannot possibly produce public (collective) goods

When thinking about the difference between government action and action taken by free people trading voluntarily in markets, we find that many myths abound. Tom G. Palmer has written an important paper that confronts these myths about markets. The sixth myth — Markets Cannot Possibly Produce Public (Collective) Goods — and Palmer’s refutation is below. The complete series of myths and responses is at Twenty Myths about Markets.

Palmer is editor of the recent book The Morality of Capitalism. He will be in Overland Park and Wichita in May speaking on the moral case for capitalism. For more information and to register for these events see The Morality of Capitalism.

Myth: Markets Cannot Possibly Produce Public (Collective) Goods

Myth: If I eat an apple, you can’t; consumption of an apple is purely rivalrous. If I show a movie and don’t want other people to see it, I have to spend money to build walls to keep out non-payers. Some goods, those for which consumption is non-rival and exclusion is costly, cannot be produced on markets, as everyone has an incentive to wait for others to produce them. If you produce a unit, I can just consume it, so I have no incentive to produce it. The same goes for you. The publicness of such goods requires state provision, as the only means to provide them. Such goods include not only defense and provision of a legal system, but also education, transportation, health care, and many other such goods. Markets can never be relied on to produce such goods, because non-payers would free-ride off of those who pay, and since everyone would want to be a free-rider, nobody would pay. Thus, only government can produce such goods.

Tom G. Palmer: The public goods justification for the state is one of the most commonly misapplied of economic arguments. Whether goods are rivalrous in consumption or not is often not an inherent feature of the good, but a feature of the size of the consuming group: a swimming pool may be non-rivalrous for two people, but quite rivalrous for two hundred people. And costs of exclusion are applicable to all goods, public or private: if I want to keep you from eating my apples, I may have to take some action to protect them, such as building a fence. Many goods that are non-rivalrous in consumption, such as a professional football game (if you see it, it doesn’t mean that I can’t see it, too), are produced only because entrepreneurs invest in means to exclude non-payers.

Besides not being an inherent feature of the goods per se, the alleged publicness of many goods is a feature of the political decision to make the goods available on a nonexclusive and even non-priced basis. If the state produces “freeways,” it’s hard to see how private enterprise could produce “freeways,” that is, zero-priced transportation, that could compete. But notice that the “freeway” isn’t really free, since it’s financed through taxes (which have a particularly harsh form of exclusion from enjoyment, known as jail), and also that the lack of pricing is the primary reason for inefficient use patterns, such as traffic jams, which reflect a lack of any mechanism to allocate scarce resources (space in traffic) to their most highly valued uses. Indeed, the trend around the world has been toward pricing of roads, which deeply undercuts the public goods argument for state provision of roads.

Many goods that are allegedly impossible to provide on markets have been, or are at present, provided through market mechanisms — from lighthouses to education to policing to transportation, which suggests that the common invocation of alleged publicness is unjustified, or at least overstated.

A common form of the argument that certain goods are allegedly only producible through state action is that there are “externalities” that are not contracted for through the price mechanism. Thus, widespread education generates public benefits beyond the benefits to the persons who are educated, allegedly justifying state provision and financing through general tax revenues. But despite the benefits to others, which may be great or small, the benefits to the persons educated are so great for them that they induce sufficient investment in education. Public benefits don’t always generate the defection of free-riders. In fact, as a wealth of research is demonstrating today, when states monopolize education they often fail to produce it for the poorest of the poor, who nonetheless perceive the benefits to them of education and invest substantial percentages of their meager incomes to educate their children. Whatever externalities may be generated by their children’s education does not stop them from paying their own money to procure education for their children.

Finally, it should be remembered that virtually every argument alleging the impossibility of efficient production of public goods through the market applies at least equally strongly– and in many cases much more strongly –to the likelihood that the state will produce public goods. The existence and operation of a just and law-governed state is itself a public good, that is, the consumption of its benefits is non-rivalrous (at least among the citizenry) and it would be costly to exclude non-contributors to its maintenance (such as informed voters) from the enjoyment of its benefits. The incentives for politicians and voters to produce just and efficient government are not very impressive, certainly when placed next to the incentives that entrepreneurs and consumers have to procure public goods through cooperation in the marketplace. That does not mean that the state should never have any role in producing public goods, but it should make citizens less willing to cede to the state additional responsibilities forproviding goods and services. In fact, the more responsibilities are given to the state, the less likely it is to be able to produce those public goods, such as defense of the rights of its citizens from aggression, at which it might enjoy special advantages.

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