Economics, Academic Philosophy

Most Public Goods Arguments are Bad

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:

  1. What is current demand for the good?
  2. What would demand be if people had reasonably stable and well-formed preference?
  3. Do the benefits of providing the good exceed the costs of provision?
  4. Are the costs and benefits fairly distributed?
  5. Would the good be more efficiently provided by governments or markets?
  6. 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?
  7. 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.

Anomaly’s conclusion:

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.

Published on:
Author: Kevin Vallier
  • William Schudlich

    I haven’t read the article yet. It does sound interesting and maybe my point is addressed. The provision of public goods is not an either/or decision between government or the market. There is a whole scale of options that reside between these two end points. I would refer you to the work of Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel fro her work in this area, and other New Institutionalists. The important point I think, is that there are many other ways that people can and do solve the “commons” problem that are neither purely government or market. Many of those solutions however, are problem/site specific and don’t lend themselves to easily exportable rules.

    • Kevin Vallier

      He talks about Ostrom some, but Ostrom complicates matters as she is one of several people who have shown that local public goods problems can be solved by small communities themselves. And that possibilities must be factored in to whether we go with either a non-local market or a non-local governmental solution.

      • Chris Bertram

        Well, he devotes part of a footnote to some rather obscure remarks about Ostrom. If I’d have been a referee, I’d have asked for more and better.

  • reason60

    “whether markets will, all things considered, produce a better or worse outcome than government action.”
    This sort of assumes that we all agree on what outcome we want to produce, doesn’t it?

    • martinbrock

      Markets don’t produce a single outcome. That’s what I like about them.

      • reason60

        In order for the article to be worth considering, we need to agree on what “better outcome” means.
        “Better” is a value judgement. More efficient allocation of resources? Advancement of the human spirit?

        • martinbrock

          Satisfying more subjective preferences.

          • reason60

            Which is perfect, if you accept the idea that the main purpose of society is to liberate us to each pursue our own goals.
            Which is wholly at odds with the desires and aspirations of the vast majority of society, who have repeatedly decided placed individual liberty subject to the creation of a unified, cohesive social order.

            For example, we have decided that it isn’t good enough that you educate your children- we insist that all children be educated, regardless of ability to pay and that all contribute towards this goal.

            Libertarianism, broadly speaking, is seeking a profound reordering of the terms of engagement that we as citizens have with each other.

            As it stands now, we as a society have socialized things like property and rights protection- but this service is offered only conditionally, predicated on reciprocal acceptance of things like taxation and regulation.
            Libertarians can change these terms, but only by persuading the rest of us to agree.

            Which is why I asked the question to begin with- the original article sidesteps the profound questions and speaks only in narrow econometric speak, leaving aside the broader question of how does libertarianism advance the goals and desires of the rest of us non-adherents?

          • martinbrock

            In my way of thinking, society has no purpose distinct from the purposes of its members. I deny that any vast majority of society’s members ever placed individual liberty subject to a unified, cohesive social order, but even if this vast majority exists, I suppose it ought to place only itself subject to a unified, cohesive social order and leave the minority as fractious and diverse as it pleases.

            When every child has guardians and every guardian educates his children, then every child is educated. I expect the guardians of children to associate with other guardians of children to create communities educating children generally. No committee of a few hundred central authorities ruling hundreds of millions is necessary for this purpose.

            In a rational system of education, all contribute towards the education of children, because all are children, and the yield of education finances education; however, regardless of economic rationality, I expect parents to favor communities educating children.

            I don’t know that you mean by Libertarianism, but I subscribe to a communitarian formulation (as in Kukathas’ Liberal Archipelago for example). A community educating all children, by requiring every member to contribute to educational institutions, is completely consistent with this formulation. I don’t expect all communities to educate all children in the same way, and I don’t know why this uniformity is advantageous.

            I expect communities generally to predicate property and other rights protection on reciprocal acceptance of various duties, but I don’t expect this reciprocity necessarily to respect some formulation decreed by a committee of a few hundred men ruling hundreds of millions.

            I don’t want to persuade you to agree with my particular, libertarian ideals or to subject yourself to them. I only want you to refrain from imposing your own, contrary ideals on me and people freely agreeing with me. Is that so much to ask?

            If you don’t adhere to my ideals, I want you ignore my ideals, find others sharing your ideals and associate with them to realize your ideals.

          • reason60

            Who says you aren’t living in the archipelago right now? We did form a community, called the United States of America. We agreed to all manner of rules and norms, and do again every 2 years.

            We all agreed that the basic norms are mandatory and binding on everyone living in this community. You are welcome to propose changes, but you need to get us to agree to it.

          • martinbrock

            We never formed a community. A few revolutionaries formed a state by waging a war of secession against the imperial power that preceded them. These revolutionaries established a systematic elite ruling over everyone else. It’s absurd to say that slaves, indentured servants or even common men and women in the colonies formed the United States. They didn’t as a matter of fact.

            “You need to get us to agree to it” seems an absurd formulation, considering that I’m allegedly a part of us as much as you are. In reality, we don’t make the rules, regardless of this formulation. A few hundred men in a committee selected periodically in majoritarian plebiscites with extremely limited options, along with a more permanent, executive bureaucracy, make the rules.

            These plebiscites involve more universal suffrage than they once did, but the number of “representatives” per subject has dwindled, and our nominal “democracy” is very far from very realistic models of democracy (people ruling themselves), hardly any closer than the early United States, with its hereditary slavery and a franchise limited largely to older, white male property holders.

            If the United States were a free community, then a sufficient number of members could secede from it and claim commensurate resources from it. Any member could exit at will, including any of the millions in cages who clearly cannot exit at will. When I write “free community” and “liberal archipelago”, I make these assumptions, and under these assumptions, it is factually incorrect to say that the United States is a free community.

          • reason60

            Man…given all that, it sucks to be you. Sorry.

          • martinbrock

            In my way of thinking, it sucks that a state sells entitlement to rents imposed on children to people who may purchase the rents precisely because they do not support the children, while people who do support children may not purchase entitlement to the rents because they do support the children.

  • Larry White

    All public goods arguments are bad as justifications for tax financing. The claim that X is underprovided by the market, such that the benefits of additional tax-finanaced provision would exceed costs, is non-falsifiable according to the very logic of public goods theory. The market is said to underproduce X because it lacks a willingness-to-pay revelation mechanism (the free-rider problem). The same lack on government’s part (it has no unique metering technology) logically makes it impossible to know whether benefits would exceed costs for additional X provided by tax funding. We can’t know whether X passes test #3 above. Or so I argue in The Clash of Economic Ideas, ch. 13.

    • Aeon Skoble

      Didn’t Schmidtz address the free-rider problem back in 91?

  • Steven Horwitz

    Horwitz and Carden offer the economist’s version of some of these questions here:

  • Les Kyle Nearhood

    I can accept an argument for a publicly provided good if both the use and the cost are atomized. An example of this would be the Roman Republic building an aqueduct to bring water into the city.

    While it is true that provision for water could be made by each individual relying upon markets, it is also true that a great benefit, lasting for a long time came to all the people by a public project which was too big, at the time, for any private group.

    A modern example would be, perhaps, the Interstate Highway system. The cost and the usage are atomized across virtually the entire populace, the provision is of obvious usefulness, and the benefit is long lasting.
    Not many other things fit that bill.

  • jdkolassa

    Johnny Anomaly?


    We will interrupt your regularly scheduled philosophy discussion to instead institute a Photoshop contest. You must create the cover to a comic book with Jonny Anomaly as the main character, a heroic philosopher.

    Only after that can we get back to usual BHL shenanigans.

  • Here’s a question to ask: “Does providing this public good involve stealing other peoples money?”

    • purple_platypus

      Another is “MUST libertarians always resort to the same two or three pieces of tiresome hyperbole, such as ‘all taxation is theft’?”. That strikes most non-libertarians as (a) cartoonishly exaggerated at best, obviously false at worst, and (b) even worse, a cliche. Even if you sincerely accept that claim, you must realize that any audience you could possibly want to reach if you wish to do anything more interesting than preach to the choir does not, and is likely to shut off as soon as they hear it. This is the opposite of persuasive.

      • 1. Don’t call me a libertarian.
        2. Taxation is factually theft.
        3. I’m not an activist and I do not support such things.
        4. Know who you’re talking to before you start taking wild swings in the dark.

      • And how about showing a little curiosity instead of acting like a dick right out of the gate? You’re a shining beacon of persuasiveness!

      • Sean II

        Sorry to interrupt Purple P, but…

        You do realize that “people are put off by it” is not a reason to refrain from saying “taxation is theft” if you happen to believe that taxation is theft. Don’t you?

        150 years ago, you could clear a fucking room by saying “women should be able to work for wages outside the home”. I’m sure you look back at the people who said that then, with admiration now. I doubt, if I loaned you my DeLorean, you would travel back in time to give them all lessons in toning it down.

        So…be consistent. Either we’re right, or we’re not. There is no “okay you’re right but don’t mention it because…yuck”.

        • purple_platypus

          “People are put off by it” is, at the very least, a reason not to LEAD with it, if you expect to persuade anyone.

          • Sean II

            My friend…if you stop saying what you believe in order to persuade people, it means they’ve persuaded you.

        • martinbrock

          Women often worked for wages outside the home 150 years ago. The early women’s movement did petition for a right to work for wages. It petitioned for admission to the professions.

          • Sean II

            Okay, I withdraw the example. Just swap in something else where 150 years ago people said X which was unthinkable then but is taken for granted now.

  • Chris Bertram

    A big issue here is going to be the individuation of the good provided. So, if good X could be provided by the state, by the market or by community, would it have the same look and feel, what would be the other consequential effects? Example: social order could be provided by anarchic community rather than the state, but doing so is probably incompatible with cultural pluralism and economic development. Parks and playgrounds (which get a bit of discussion in the paper) are going to be very different things in terms of experience and social meaning if we turn them into private goods and exclude all the poor kids.

    • Chris Bertram

      Generally, the egalitarian liberal is going to press the point in the following way: ok you could provided some version of the good by means other than state provision and tax financing, but how would doing so affect status equality among democratic citizens? (I’m channelling Satz, Anderson here.) The libertarian response is likely that you don’t care about that stuff. Well, fine, but then you’ll succeed in convincing your fellow libertarians (and allied economists) that what they believed all along is right. Everyone else will be left unmoved.

      • Sean II

        “The libertarian response is likely that you don’t care about that stuff.”

        Yep, Chris, you nailed it. That’s the response you’ll get if you ask the libertarian who lives inside your head. He just doesn’t care.

        Don’t ask a real libertarian, though, because that might screw things up. He’s liable to point out something crazy like…that it’s hard to think of anything more symbolic of inequality today than public parks. The green spaces you find in Novi, Michigan (where Anderson’s well-to-do, in-state undergrads perhaps go to play hacky-sack) might as well be on Io, as far as the black kids in Detroit are concerned. What flourishes on their playgrounds in Clostridium tetani, not democratic equality.

        I’m sure they’d be laughing in mighty fits to find out someone is worried about the possibility they’ll be excluded from the anarcho-capitalist playgrounds of the rich. Perhaps you should go tell them how lucky they are under the present system.

        • Chris Bertram

          Ah well Sean, having the good fortune to live somewhere where marketization is more restrained and where racial and class segregation are too, I also live somewhere where public space is more democratically accessible. I’m sure, however, that with a few more years of free-market solutions, we’ll catch right up with Michigan.

          • Sean II

            Ha! I’m sure you spend plenty of time hanging out with chavs and Ali G types. You guys must have lots to talk about. After all, your society is legendary for its success in tearing down class distinctions. It’s not as though four labor governments came and went since WW II while somehow failing to cure Britain of the snobbery and social status obsession which is its most conspicuous (but not its only!) hereditary disease.

            When I think of British social equality, my memory naturally summons an image of its two great pop-cultural symbols: Humphrey Appleby and Del Boy Trotter. One taught us how no amount of failure could topple a member of the new class elite, while the other reminded us that no amount of striving would suffice to lift a prole up from ridiculousness.

            But let me guess: the problem was just that Attlee didn’t go far enough, right? Too clement, was he, in pressing the class war against running-dog capitalist bourgeois and their verminous petit-burgeois kulak accomplices? One more big push (perhaps if he’d nationalized apple carts) would have put equality over the top, eh?

        • purple_platypus

          Okay, this may be true as far as it goes, but what’s missing is a reason to think free-market solutions would be any better. At best, you’ve made a case that they could scarcely be worse.

          And, I still think Chris is right that the libertarian qua libertarian is going to respond that they don’t care about equality, in at least the following sense. Individual libertarians may indeed hold a sincere preference for more rather than less equality. However, as libertarians, they’re nevertheless committed to the following claims: (1) public policy that intentionally aims at equality is necessarily misguided, and (2) inequality doesn’t necessarily entail injustice. Do you disagree with any part of this, and if so, which part?

          At most, the libertarian in that situation can argue that a greater emphasis on the free market et al will, in some Rube Goldberg fashion, eventually lead to greater equality, and/or that if it doesn’t, this isn’t so bad, because freedom. And these are precisely the arguments that fail to convince anyone not already predisposed to believe their conclusions.

          • Sean II

            I’ll put all my cards on the table (and thanks for asking):

            1) I do indeed value equality in several forms: moral, legal, economic, social, cultural etc.

            2) I just don’t get confused like leftos, who a) seem to value only the word “equality” and b) use that word like a magic incantation to dismiss anything they don’t like. (e.g. “Yeah sure it’s amazing that even poor people can own mobile phones and consume high-quality goods at a level that would embarrass the Romanovs…but um, it’s really bad because – shazaam – the Gini coefficient!”)

            3) Come to think of it, Chris Bertram is a fine example of how the left really feels about this topic. The words are egalitarian, the thoughts and deeds thoroughly elitist. Why wait for legislation, if you’re genuinely willing to put yourself on a par with the little people? That can be done on an individual level, here and now.

            4) As a matter of fact, I do think the free market would give us a lot more equality. The moral and legal kind, pretty much by definition. The social and cultural kind, as a logical consequence of liberty.

            Economically, I grant you the Gini coefficient will change, but I contend that is more “a statistical artifact” than it is “a substantive reason to shit our pants”.

            5) There’s nothing Rube Goldberg about 4). You’re the guy who thinks something strange and not-at-all-intuitive: namely, that a NASCAR redneck will be better off (and maybe stop being what he is, since that’s probably quite repugnant to you) if only his household income moves a couple points closer to that of a golf obsessed junior law partner…no matter whether the narrowing occurs by one income going up or the other going down!

            6) Of course I think “inequality doesn’t necessarily entail injustice”. One would have to make war against reality (not to mention any form of human diversity) to think that all inequality entails injustice.

          • Chris Bertram

            “Chris Bertram is a fine example of how the left really feels about this topic ….”

            Quite aside from the invocation of the meaningless category of “the left” (who apparently think the same as one another about everything), I’d note that not for the first time, Sean II launches a personal and ad hominem attack from behind the veil of anonymity.

          • Sean II

            Interesting premise there. If “the left” is a meaningless category because it fails to take in every little idea and every little variation on those ideas held by every member of the group it describes, then the same must be true of every tag or shorthand ever applied to any social group. Since the result of that is ridiculous (we could never talk about groups at all, because the individual would be the largest unit of analysis allowed in any discussion), I think we can go ahead and dismiss it.

            In any case you’ve used the term ad hominem incorrectly (perhaps not for the first time, said Sean II ominously…and anonymously).

            You see, I’m interested in two separate things here:

            1) Whether public parks promote democratic equality.
            2) Since they don’t…why anyone would think they do.

            The first is a social-political line of inquiry, the second a psychological one. Now, if I used reasoning from the second question to answer the first, that would be ad hominem, among other bad things.

            But that’s not what I did. I already gave my reasons for thinking public parks aren’t doing much for equality, and those reasons have nothing to do with you (sorry!).

            I then moved quickly to my second question: since public parks aren’t promoting equality, why would an evidently smart person think otherwise? What disorder or disease of thought might lead him and others to such an evidently ridiculous conclusion.

            Now Chris, my boy, I’m sure you can see that, since you are the proper subject of inquiry 2), it cannot be a matter of ad hominem for me to talk about you in personal terms. You are, after all, playing the part of specimen there.

            You can understand that, can’t you?

          • Les Kyle Nearhood

            Remind me to never cross swords with you Sean.

          • Sean II

            Ha! The funny thing is, I’m really very affable. Only a few things reliably set me off: humorlessness, moral posturing, and people who play dumb and/or plainly deny the obvious (a grievous sin because this forces other people to do lots of unnecessary conversational work).

            Chris, for example, tripped the switch by pretending there’s no such thing as “leftism” and claiming, therefore, that it’s impossible to make broadly accurate predications about what leftists will say when confronted with this question or that. This qualifies both as playing dumb and denying the obvious.

            And for the record, I try hard to be fair in applying these rules. Libertarians don’t get a pass for agreeing with my policy preferences. Just ask Sharon.

          • Chris Bertram

            There are many questions on which it is impossible to make broadly accurate predictions about what “leftists” will say. Immigration, basic income, humanitarian interventions, to name but three off the top of my head Sean II.

          • Sean II

            Sure, but the fact that I can’t predict exactly where you stand on, say, Western military intervention in Syria doesn’t prevent me from guessing your position on a host of other issues. I can, for example, confidently predict a 90% overlap between your policy preferences and those of UNISON, perhaps including a few positions where you stand to the left of that group.

            And besides, even though I can’t guess your Syria position, I can still make predictions about how you would likely defend whatever position you take. That is very significant indeed.

            If you’re pro-intervention, then as a leftist it would be very odd if “national greatness” was one of your reasons for favoring a Syrian intervention. That smacks of Thatcher and Reagan. Instead I would expect you to rely on humanitarian arguments. Maybe, maybe there’s a slight chance you’d come at this with a Clinton – Blair style pragmatism (“We can’t let the region plunge further into chaos, etc.”) but in your case that seems less likely.

            If you’re against intervention, it would be very odd if you took a “Britain first” isolationist tack. That’s been deadly poison in left circles for quite some time. Rather I would expect your reasoning to be empirical: Let’s not rush into another Iraq, we don’t know what would happen next, that sort of thing.

            There’s a noticeable difference between the British left and the American on this issue. Your leftos were always more internationalist than our leftos, while our leftos associate internationalism with George W. Bush (go ahead and laugh at that), so it really wouldn’t surprise me if – how to say this – your leftos proved better able to see dead Syrians as actual dead people, and thus to support intervention on that grounds.

            Must I continue…or can we call it established that one can speak of “leftism” in a way that is unprejudiced, intelligent, interesting, informative, etc?

      • Kevin Vallier

        Chris, I took the article to focus on criticizing arguments for public goods that are strictly “economic” in nature, stuff about market failure, underprovision, etc. I think the article is successful in that task.

        However, you do raise an interesting point. Status equality is a really big deal for Rousseauians like yourself and, despite Sean II, I think it IS something libertarians need to think more about and that we have been too ready to dismiss at times. I think most libertarians will say that status inequalities are sometimes worth worrying about but that they cannot, by themselves, justify coercion, even if they’re morally significant. Most libertarians will likely argue that the meaningful and harmful status inequalities can either be fixed by undoing the social and political coercion on which such status inequalities depend or simply by trying to lead culture change that does not involve appeals to politics.

        I’m not sure that’s enough. In fact, Nozick wasn’t sure that’s enough. After all, worries about laws playing symbolic roles was what his much exaggerated recantation was all about!

        So let me ask you a question in response. I’m not sure how to distinguish between the status inequalities that we care about and the ones we think are simply a matter of envy or bad character. And it’s not a libertarian point at all, as you well know; it’s a concern of Rawls’s as well. I still don’t have a good grip on the distinction which is why I may be inclined to dismiss such worries too lightly.


          Why should libertarians (or anyone else for that matter) worry about status inequalities that arise not from governmental action of one sort or the other, but simply from differences in people’s natural endowments?

          • Kevin Vallier

            Well, if you’re a Rousseau guy like Chris, then you think there’s a third category: socially constructed status inequalities, like rich and poor, lord and serf, upper class and lower class. Many of those are destructive if for no other reason than that they rely on a destructive passion that solidarity must be mustered to control: amour propre.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Good answer, thanks. However, I think that after you strip away the effects of morally illegitimate governmental intervention, what you have left in status differential is simply the reflection of a society’s values. In this society, wealth and celebrity are generally highly valued, while poverty and anonymity are disfavored. It doesn’t have to be this way. So, here, those possessing these attributes enjoy high status. Thus, we are back to the familiar libertarian challenge: by what right does the state interfere to disturb or redistribute the effects of the values we have freely adopted?

          • Bloody hell, Mark! What is “society’s values”? Drop that collectivist crap for a start!

            Some of us value intellectual attainment, which depends not just on natural endowment but on intellectual striving and tenacity. Some of us value sporting prowess, and so on.

            As Nozick argued, if we somehow got rid of the familiar status differences, people would seek, and find, other differences on which meaningful distinctions in status could be based. I think this is a good thing, because difference in status, and the possibility of improving one’s status, encourages improvement.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Hi Danny,
            In my humble defense, “society’s values” is meant simply as a way of describing the values held by each individual member, that when aggregated, determine which people hold high status in that society. I don’t value celebrity, but the majority here do, so celebrities–no matter what they have done to gain fame–are worshipped. As for the rest, I completely agree with your comment.

          • Well, that’s comforting, Mark. I thought you had been nobbled…

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Ah, British slang, always entertaining:

          • Sean II

            “I don’t value celebrity, but the majority here do”

            By “here” do you mean “people on this blog worship academic celebrities” or do you just mean “people in the United States worship heiresses who make sex tapes”.

            I ask because for my money, academic celebrities are the worst.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            My good man, as a result of earlier comments that were apparently deemed offensive, I am already a bit of a persona non grata on this site. Because “people on this blog” might be construed to include the powers that be, I must respectfully decline to answer, on the grounds that it might get me in further hot water.

          • Sean II

            Two things. First, how did I miss that? Second, if a guy like you can be cast out of favor, how am I not simply banned?

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Your goods looks and pleasing personality?

          • Sean II

            It says a lot that you end up falling into expired categories like lord and serf.

            Here are a few examples of status inequality that matter to me, and should to all libertarians:

            Occupationally Licensed vs Not
            Big Enough to Bear Costs of New Rule vs. Too Small to Compete
            Goes to Jail vs. Knows the Game
            Poor Slob Who Follows the Rules vs. Lucky Slob Who Knows the Regulators
            Subsidized, Tenured Prof vs. Debt-Bonded Student
            And that’s not all!

            Those who focus on statistical wealth inequality see only a symptom. Of course the left should prefer to focus on that symptom, while ignoring the many forms of inequality they perpetuate (or simply ignore).

            Our job is not to let them get away with that. The most important form of equality is the legal kind, and we are the only group who can deliver it.

          • Theresa Klein

            I have to really agree with Sean’s post here.

            What I see in the world around me is not JUST inequality driven by wealth differences. I see a great deal of inequality driven by differential eligibility for various government subsidies and programs.

            More and more people are spending their time figuring out how they can qualify for grants or subsidies, and fewer and fewer people are trying to figure out how they can make something that other people really want to buy.

          • Sean II

            Good point. Consider two people and tell me who’s on the losing end of inequality:

            A) A self-employed general contractor who made $90,000 last year and $390,000 this year, but who might very well make $0 next year.

            B) A high status/low income PhD making $37,000 a year at some heavily subsidized non-profit that writes “green work” rules to regulate the construction industry.

            It’s not at all clear that A) is in the best position here. B) enjoys greater security, less responsibility, academic credentials, high social status, and a little consumption good known as self-righteousness. He also has the power to influence how state coercion is used against A).

            The only thing A) has is more money, for now.

          • Theresa Klein

            Sean, actually my bet is that a PhD working at a subsidized environmental non-profit advocacy group (say NYPIRG) probably makes close to $100,000/year, despite the fact that his job produces very little of tangible value for anyone.

            This same person is getting paid from the tax dollars taken from the self-employed contractor, who gets his income directly from real people who willingly pay him for it, and who has to deal constantly with the need to provide real tangible value to real people – or get nothing.

          • adrianratnapala

            How is the lord/serf distinction not a creation of government? It’s what happens when a bunch of armed barbarians (or countrymen) decide that they will be making rules and levying taxes. Sounds like government to me.

            I emphasise that inequality because it is so much worse than the others you list – and even lends some of its stink to those others.

        • Sean II

          “Status equality is a really big deal for Rousseauians like yourself and, despite Sean II, I think it IS something libertarians need to think more about…”

          Now that’s interesting. I never said status inequality was unimportant, and yet there’s my name, with “despite” clinging to it for some reason.

          What I actually said was that mixed economies aren’t exactly working wonders for status equality now, so it’s strange to see Chris B fretting on the danger of losing something that doesn’t really exist.

          I swear, sometimes you BHL guys are so determined to contrast yourselves with the uncaring pricks of let-em-starve libertarianism, you have to conjure them up out of your imagination. That’s unfair because I, for one, am an extremely caring libertarian prick with no plans to starve anyone.

          • Les Kyle Nearhood

            I know a few whom I would like to starve, although I would toss them a few crumbs if they could give me a reasonable refutation of the labor theory of value.

          • Kevin Vallier

            Two thoughts:

            (1) That you think status inequality is something libertarians should care about and think harder about was *not* obvious from your (snarky) reply to Chris. Instead, it seemed dismissive, so I assumed you were being dismissive in general. Seemed fair at the time, but I appreciate the clarification.

            (2) Now, on to your jumping to conclusions: “I swear, sometimes you BHL guys are so determined to contrast yourselves with the uncaring pricks of let-em-starve libertarianism, you have to conjure them up out of your imagination. That’s unfair because I, for one, am an extremely caring libertarian prick with no plans to starve anyone.”

            Where did this come from? I think it’s clear we BHLers vary substantially from person to person. I’m not especially interested in pleasing the left (as you’ll see from my next post in particular). However, one of my pet peeves is not recognizing reasonable pluralism when it is present. Your treatment of Chris in this and other threads seems to illustrate that. I want BHL to be a place people other than libertarians feel comfortable commenting in a level-headed way (as you typically do), so I wanted to make clear that not everyone around here approaches Chris’s comments like you do.

          • Sean II

            I’ll give you four thoughts for your two:

            1) Read what you just wrote. The only thing my snark showed was that I didn’t think much of Chris’ comment. Yet you felt no trouble in deriving therefrom a conclusion which certainly does not follow: that I mustn’t think much of equality in the general case. You made that leap. Don’t blame me because you did.

            2) I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again now: BHL has a distinct style, voice, tendency, etc. Why else would it exist, if not for that? So it shouldn’t be taboo for people to talk about how “BHL’ers often do this or say that”. Of course you are 12 or 13 different people. I can see the names on the banner. But you must have several things in common, or else you wouldn’t be here. What I’m saying now is: one of the things many of you seem to have in common is a tendency to assume you have a market corner on libertarian caring (note, for example, the assumption you just made about me).

            3) Chris is a big boy, so it seems odd to worry about how I’m “treating” him. I think a neutral judge joining the conversation at this point would probably say we’re both a little snarky, a little condescending to each other. He might say I’m better at it, but that is not a moral point in the other guys’ favor.

            4) Speaking of status equality, I urge you to ask yourself a tough question: do YOU treat guys like Chris Bertram differently out of something like professional courtesy?

            The way I see it, he drops in from time to time and fires off a hit-and-run comment, without ever engaging in a sustained, substantive exchange. He seems pretty evasive, pretty “talking point-ish” to me. He frequently ignores even high-quality feedback from people below the line.

            Indeed, I didn’t start out by messing with the dude. I did so only after noticing that he never sticks around to back up his comments.

            If he was a regular commenter, if his Disqus name was “Noble Savage34” or something, I think you’d see him in another light.

            So you see…I do care about status equality, after all!

        • Chris Bertram

          I’m not sure that describing my views as Rousseauian is all that helpful. Sure, he’s an abiding scholarly interest of mine and I love reading him, but I don’t think you could draw too many correct inferences about what I think from the label (not that I’d want to disclaim it, if the fit is loose enought).

          On your question, don’t think there’s a simple and universally correct answer, because the list of goods that a person needs access to to participate in society on roughly equal terms with others is going to vary by culture, level of technological development and probably a bunch of other things. But access to some reasonable amount of shared public space would make my list, and we are getting to the point where access to the internet isn’t merely a matter of private luxury. Some such goods could be made available if a UBI were at the right level, others, in virtue of their shared social character might be more difficult (technically) to provide to individuals on the market. Also note that you want to attend to the bundle of goods that people can access and not whether for each good it is possible to access that good.

          • Kevin Vallier

            Understood about Rousseau. I was mostly building off of your laudatory CT post on his birthday. You’re obviously right that status inequalities are highly culturally variable. I’ve always found Walzer helpful here. I will admit that sometimes government seems to be in a better position to provide a status good simply because it is widely believed to have the power to confer social status, whether that is a good thing or not. So in the short-term, it’s often worth supporting state efforts to make symbolic recognitions in order to combat social status inequalities, though I imagine we’d differe case-by-case.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Perhaps you could provide a few examples of “state efforts to make symbolic recognitions in order to combat social inequalities” that you support.

          • Kevin Vallier

            Enfranchising women and blacks.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I am sincerely puzzled. According to my dictionary, “enfranchise” means “to admit to citizenship, esp. to the right of voting” and “to set free; liberate, as from slavery.” Women and blacks are neither slaves nor prohibited from voting, so you must mean something more abstract, which you have yet to specify. Perhaps more importantly still, both groups have clearly been the victim of past state-sponsored discrimination, so they wouldn’t count as the sort of examples I requested, i.e. where status inequalities arise from differences in natural endowments.

          • Kevin Vallier

            I didn’t realize you were asking me for policies I support that have yet to happen. I’m just giving examples where the state made an effort at symbolic recognition (the right to vote is largely symbolic, in my view) to combat a status inequality. And I didn’t realize you were restricting matters to differences due to natural endowments. That seems too restrictive. Perhaps you might mean something like differences due merely to cultural norms of customs. If so, Nozick’s case of an ineffectively low minimum wage is a pretty interesting case, as would be banning voluntary slavery.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I am just trying to figure out your position in light of what you actually said, i.e. quoting your words that your support certain “state efforts to make symbolic recognitions in order to combat social inequalities.” I take it that it is entirely uncontroversial that if the state is responsible for creating social inequalities, it should fix them (subject to various constraints about hurting the innocent, etc.). So we are not talking about this sort of case.

            That leaves social inequalities that arise from differences in luck or natural endowments (or culture if this is what you think). You also said “symbolic,” so I don’t think the minimum wage qualifies. [Where by the way did Nozick say this?] By the process of elimination, then, the government interventions you support to redress this kind of social inequality is a prohibition on involuntary slavery?

          • Sean II

            Whatever example he gives, Mark, be sure and hold it to a cost comparison.

            Is the symbolic equality gained worth the equality lost by having a state that says “only we can make law”?

          • Sean II

            One problem with that: you and I rightly see voting as chiefly symbolic, but the people in question – women and blacks – are encouraged to believe voting is something much more substantial. Most do believe this. Especially in the black community, ballots are held in high regard and seen as an important tool of advancement. The fact that they do not deliver is rarely held against them.

            It would help your cause if you had an example of the state combatting inequality that wasn’t dependent on lots of people holding a clearly false belief.

          • martinbrock

            See G.K. Chesterton’s “Sincerity and the Gallows” in What’s Wrong with the World.

          • Sean II

            Can you really give the state credit for those things, given:

            a) It monopolized political life so that no other entity was in a position to combat such inequalities.

            b) In one case it had to be dragged kicking and screaming.

          • martinbrock

            Since the franchise isn’t worth the paper on which I check one of two names, neither of which I know well enough to distinguish meaningfully, for a few seconds every few years, I can hardly imagine a cheaper and less thoughtful gift from the state to its subjects.

      • Theresa Klein

        Libertarians do care about status equality. “Equal justice under law”, for starters. Having a group of simple minimal, uniform rules is another sort of equality under law.
        Problem is that if you use the government to manipulate outcomes to get to economic equality, that necessitates violating that very principle of equal rules and equal justice. You can’t legally treat the rich and the poor alike under the law and simultaneously create special rules that take from the rich and give to the poor. Once you start taking from the rich to give to the poor, you aren’t doing equal justice anymore.

        Nevermind that IN PRACTICE the government never actually manages to distribute anything equally anyway. It’s always distributed according to political expediency. If you belong to the right interest groups , you get lucky and the money faucet flows your way. If not, tough titties. Elections have consequences.

    • martinbrock

      I doubt that anarchic (or minarchic) community is incompatible with cultural pluralism and economic development. On the contrary, I suppose that free association achieves as much cultural pluralism and economic development as we can realistically expect. A state attempting to impose more simply fails.

      Free association doesn’t rule out cultural pluralism. It only permits cultural monism. Why expect most people to choose cultural monism? I wouldn’t choose it. You presumably wouldn’t choose it? You and I are so much more pluralistic than the rest of humanity? Do we merit a prize for our pluralism?

  • martinbrock

    Johnny Anomaly seems to argue not that most public goods arguments are bad but that most of the arguments are questionable, that conclusions of these arguments lack mathematical rigor or unambiguous certainty. The arguments have a lot of company in this regard. Proprietarian arguments favoring particular “private” monopolies, all the way back to parcels of land, are similarly questionable.

    Libertarians typically take particular, proprietarian assumptions, like Lockean or Rothbardian assumptions, for granted, and that’s fine within a particular libertarian community, but others will not grant these assumptions, and no one should compel respect for the assumptions in my way of thinking, because … you know … I’m a libertarian.

    Enthusiastic advocates of market organization (including me) must never forget that markets typically do not determine the rules governing what persons may exchange in the first instance. As an intentional communitarian, I advocate something like a market in these rules, but I presume some systematic distribution of natural resources among communities, and we don’t often discuss distributist assumptions here, largely because the discussion never reaches this point before others lose interest.

    That said, let’s be clear about what constitutes a “public good”. In common parlance, a “public good” is a good provided by a central authority entitled forcibly to organize resources into a form accessible more or less freely by any subject of the state (outside of a state prison) wishing to access the resources, though access in practice may be more limited. Public roads are the quintessential example, but “clean air”, including air free of rising CO2 concentration allegedly causing civilization-destroying climate change, is more fashionable example these days.

    From my perspective, the choice between 1) a state imposing “public goods” on its subjects and 2) goods available to consumers in a market organizing resources held exclusively by individuals is a false choice. This choice simply ignores the possibility of free associations, practically unconstrained by any state, including a state imposing a particular formulation of “individual property”, providing goods to members of the association.

    So the choice in my mind is not between a state providing a “public good” and a market organizing Rothbardian property. The choice is between a state providing a public good and a variety of goods offered by many, more or less independent communities providing goods to their members. Such a community might or might not require respect for a particular, Lockean or Rothbardian standard of propriety.

    Within a particular community, access to a good may be as unlimited as a state’s “public good”, so the question becomes: why must a state impose a particular formulation of a particular good on every member of every community, as opposed to freeing people to choose among many communities offering a variety of goods to their members?

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  • the_caganer

    I would add one more, a simple efficacy study, much like one the FDA requires of any new drug. Very few programs will pass it, just like medicaid in Oregon. Public education, we spend more than most other countries, yet the OECD just released data that American lag their international counterparts.

    • Les Kyle Nearhood

      The operative idea behind any government program should be the same as the Hippocratic oath: First do no harm.

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  • Bob_Robert

    The article is using far too many “opinion” words for my taste. Too much of “better”, “should”, and “well-informed”.

    Even the primary assertion, that of “market failure”, is a matter of opinion.

    After reading a whole lot of economics over the decades, I have concluded that “market failure” means someone didn’t get what they think they wanted at a price they think they should have paid. It is nothing but an opinion, used to justify putting people in prison and robbing them of their wealth.

    • Les Kyle Nearhood

      True enough, the market never really fails. It reacts to stimuli. A market crash is very predictable. When you see easy money policies, when you see overheated prices on real estate or securities, when people are blowing and going and calling themselves Masters of the Universe, it is time to sell everything and buy gold.

    • reason60

      Very true; Markets aren’t teleological, they don’t have desired outcomes, they are agnostic and amoral about what gets produced.
      So “market failure” only means it failed to produce what we wanted; so we use a different mechanism to obtain our desired goal.

      • Bob_Robert

        You know better words than I do, I trust that you used them correctly. :^)

        “we use a different mechanism to obtain our desired goal.”

        I have two problems with that sentence, and yet I don’t disagree with it. That is, in fact, exactly what happens. A method other than the “market”.

        First problem I have is, what is this mechanism? Well, if it’s not voluntary, then it’s coercive. That mechanism is force.

        Second, “What’s this ‘we’ shit, Kemosabe?” The market is producing what is desired and can be achieved voluntarily. So the coercive mechanism is resorted to by those with power to achieve their own ends. This is necessarily a minority, since if it was a majority it could have done it voluntarily, and it must also be destructive, otherwise people would be doing it voluntarily.

        • reason60

          Yes, if you reject the legitimate authority of a majority rule, then I suppose any invocation of “We” pursuing “our” goals is going to cause you problems.
          I hold that the state as constituted is legitimate, that there is a legitimate use of coercion, so the communitarian uses of “we” are not a problem for me.

          • Bob_Robert

            “the state as constituted is legitimate, that there is a legitimate use of coercion”

            Cool. I like that we can disagree on one thing, but agree on other things. An excellent demonstration of economics as a “value free” science.

  • austin

    “one of the core functions of government is to supply public goods” definitely it is true and i support it

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