I sometimes report on BHL-relevant developments in philosophy journals, and I’ve just found a total gem of a piece that you should all be aware of. Philosopher Jonny Anomaly (yes, that’s his real name), a lecturer at UNC Chapel Hill, has just published a piece in Politics, Philosophy and Economics on how to make a successful argument for government provision of public goods. Here’s the abstract for his “Public Goods and Government Action” article, which I strongly recommend that you read:
It is widely agreed that one of the core functions of government is to supply public goods that markets either fail to provide or cannot provide efficiently. I will suggest that arguments for government provision of public goods require fundamental moral judgments in addition to the usual economic considerations about the relative efficacy of markets and governments in supplying them. While philosophers and policymakers owe a debt of gratitude to economists for developing the theory of public goods, the link between public goods and public policy cannot be forged without moral reflection on the proper function and scope of government power.
Anomaly argues that to make a successful moral argument for the government provision of public goods, one must answer all of the following questions:
- What is current demand for the good?
- What would demand be if people had reasonably stable and well-formed preference?
- Do the benefits of providing the good exceed the costs of provision?
- Are the costs and benefits fairly distributed?
- Would the good be more efficiently provided by governments or markets?
- If a public good is an artifact of public policy, should governments or markets supply it anyway, or should they alter the politics or incentive strucutres that make the good public to begin with?
- Is government provision of public goods paternalistic, or otherwise morally objectionable?
The paper is largely devoted to showing how hard it is to answer these questions.
BHL relevance: if you think there is even a mild presumption against the use of government coercion, such that government inaction is a weak default, Anomaly shows you that justifying government action to provide public goods is still extremely difficult. A natural conclusion is that most common arguments for government provision of public goods are pretty bad or seriously incomplete. In fact, given Anomaly’s sensible hurdles, it’s hard to see how we could get one off the ground in principle.
I have argued that although public goods are sources of market failure, and that governments can sometimes intervene to improve the outcome, widespread demand for public goods is, at best, a necessary condition for government intervention. There is no automatic link between demand and welfare, and the link is especially tenuous in the case of public goods because people have less incentive to become informed about goods which they lack the power to unilaterally produce or consume. In markets, poorly formed preferences are punished because buyers bear the costs of bad choices. In the political realm, this is rarely true since individual citizens have little power to decide through consumption or voting which public goods will be provided. This suggests that before policy makers decide to address a public goods problem with the machinery of government, they should consider whether demand for public goods stems from well-formed desires, whether the costs of public provision exceed the benefits, and whether markets will, all things considered, produce a better or worse outcome than government action.
Go check out the article.