Teaching ‘Public Goods’: A useful exercise

I think a good discussion / activity to go with Chapter 1 of my textbook is to have students come up with a list of “public goods” and then ask if they are truly, strictly speaking, non-excludable. You don’t want to confuse them, but it might be worth thinking about the concept more closely and, it the process, ingrain in them the understanding that the technical definition of “public goods” means less than by what people often say are public goods. For example, a lot of things that most agree are socially beneficial (e.g., parks or roads) actually are excludable and therefore not actually “public goods.” We just choose not to exclude because we want “public” (i.e., universal) access. But it is only because of this strict definition of “public goods” as non-excludable goods that we can say that providing public goods is someting that all governments purport to do. Not every government makes a priority of providing public parks or universal literacy. But all governments claim to provide non-excludable goods like “national defense” and “order.”

Link to US Civitas Facebook Discussion Thread


When / Why do People Choose to Contribute to Public Goods?

Are people mostly self-interested egoists who are unlikely to help achieve common goals unless somehow forced or induced to do so by government or other powerful agencies?  Although a lot of people (and the assumptions of traditional economics) suggest the answer is yes, there is reason to doubt this is so. Or, to be more precise, there is good reason to doubt it is true of all or even most people. For example, why does anyone voluntarily vote when there is essentially zero chance that doing so will promote the individual voter’s narrow self-interest? And why do people voluntarily recycle or work with others to help out a neighbor in need? At least some people seem to be motivated by a sense of social obligation or some motive(s) other than narrow egoistic self-interest.

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