Freedom as a public good

I’ve just heard a lady define personal freedom as a public good on the radio. I was slightly taken aback. I have been interested in the definition and the implications of the concept of public goods for a long time.

Public goods are “non-excludable” and “non-rivalrous”. This means that publics goods are goods from which no one can be excluded at the point of consumption and they don’t “decrease” when someone uses them.

This is not to say that public goods come for free. In fact, States use MOST of their resources to create public goods. They are financed (generally) by our taxes. But, yes, once they are in place, public goods are free at the point of consumption.

No, this is not an easy definition and, together with students and colleagues, I have been exploring this concept for years. It is a very “stable” concept in economics, but it’s hard to grasp. I have always taught public goods as slightly in opposition to a conception of libertarianism. In my head, public goods are the product of collective action (aka, public action, aka governmental action, although obviously the private sector and the civic society are very important actors in delivering public goods as well), to which libertarians are instinctively and sometimes blindly opposed.

The classic example of public good is public safety. It is more than clear that public safety demands huge public investment, but once it is there, everyone is “safe” (to varying degrees). Urban clean air is another favourite example. Clean air occurs naturally, so maybe it shouldn’t be considered a good? But indeed, in cities, the negative externalities of human activity demand public action to keep the air clean. Huge public investment, regulation, taxes are put in place to make the air cleaner in cities. Once the air is clean, everyone is welcome to breathe it.

We know that in reality both safety and clean air depend on the geography of privilege and disadvantage in space (hence my interest in spatial justice), so these public goods are sadly not equally accessible in a real city, but they should be.

But back to the lady’s definition, it is easy (now that she opened my eyes) to define personal freedom ALSO as a public good. We can only be free in cooperation with others, and freedom is a collective (rather than individual) endeavour.

An individual alone in the middle of the Sahara desert is not “free”. They are simply going to die of hunger (or loneliness, if they do have access to water and food). We need public goods (produced collectively) and the cooperation of others to be able to pursue our dreams and our own happiness. We also care and work for the happiness of others, and in doing so, we are even happier.

So, yeah, freedom is most certainly a public good. I would call it a networked public good, because it is interdependent with a number of other pubic goods created collectively.


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