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The Proper Role of Government: Considering Public Goods and Private Goods

What is a "private good"? Individual life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are commonly cited. Health is a fundamental private good. Some minimal level of material well-being is part of the "good life" envisioned by the founders of the country, but it is important to note that in the Classical tradition on which the founders drew, the good life, or "happiness," included more than material well-being. In this tradition participation in the life of society is commonly considered part of the "good life."

This post was written by guest-blogger Donald Thompson, Professor of Food Science at Penn State University Park.

What is a "private good"? Individual life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are commonly cited. Health is a fundamental private good. Some minimal level of material well-being is part of the "good life" envisioned by the founders of the country, but it is important to note that in the Classical tradition on which the founders drew, the good life, or "happiness," included more than material well-being. In this tradition participation in the life of society is commonly considered part of the "good life."

Pursuit of the "good life" has always been relatively easier for those with the good fortune to have been born into a relatively privileged social and economic situation. Two related ethical questions in a democratic society are "Should everyone have at least an adequate opportunity to succeed in their efforts in the pursuit of happiness?", and "Should success be primarily the reward of effort and talent, rather than from the good fortune of initial circumstance?" The questions are ones of justice. Some individuals have inspiring stories about how they overcame adversity to achieve success. These stories, while they may be true, function as cultural myths, telling us about our aspirations as a society. But are these inspiring stories representative ones, or are they striking because they are exceptional? We never read the stories of those who suffered initial disadvantages, worked hard, played by the rules, and yet did not succeed. Among the many reasons to explain failure in these stories we do not hear, one that is difficult to exclude is that the barriers to success were too great. These stories are either mundane or depressing. They do not tell us what we want to believe about our society. We would prefer to think that those individuals who did not succeed were responsible for the outcome, that they failed as a result of some personal deficiency, that in this respect they are fundamentally unlike the rest of us. For centuries this kind of thinking has been applied as a way of explaining misfortune, whether sickness or economic: it is more comforting to think that people who suffer have somehow deserved their suffering, that it may even be God's punishment. At least then one has the illusion of justice, as well as the illusion of control over one's own circumstances. The converse of this logic is that success serves as verification of deservedness. But do particular people who suffer sickness or who are economically struggling deserve their situation? And if they do not, should anyone else care? If they do not deserve their situation, is there any collective responsibility to right the injustice they experience? Even if they were thought to deserve their situation, is there any obligation to help our fellow citizens? These are ethical questions.

We can and do argue about how well we can sort out causes for the adverse circumstances experienced by grown adults. But for children, one simply cannot argue coherently that they have deserved their situation, whether it be a favorable or unfavorable one. They are simply lucky or unlucky as to birth. So on the basis of justice it would seem beyond reproach that children should have some minimally adequate opportunity to succeed. It is a fundamental question of justice that children be provided with opportunity to accomplish an education. The same can be argued with respect to food and shelter for children: the issue is one of fundamental justice. They have a right to a certain level of private goods.

What is the proper role of government concerning the well-being of its citizens? Minimally it is to provide those necessary goods that cannot be achieved by individuals acting as discrete entities. The common defense is certainly a necessary and perhaps the primary "public good" according to this definition. Provision of clean air is a public good. Minimization of contagious disease is a public good. Construction and maintenance of roads is a public good. Provision of safe drinking water and electricity are recognized in law as public goods, in that these services are provided by public utilities. Maintaining social and economic order through a legal system and enforcing the laws are also public goods. Laws to ensure provision of public goods typically constrain private goods, even with respect to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

All these public goods require resources to accomplish, and these resources include individual acknowledgment of legitimate constraints on their private goods, including payment of taxes levied groupwise. There is a tight relationship between the various public goods and the resources required to accomplish them. Before determining the proper relationship, one ought to have an understanding of the value of public goods, as well as of the rationale for their publicness. Thus the question of whether education should be considered an important "public good" should first be framed independently of the question of what level of taxes is acceptable. Once this question and others about other public goods are answered, all the "public goods" and their costs should be then be prioritized and considered against the cost to individuals in the form of taxes. It may well be that all the desirable public goods envisioned will be deemed to be too expensive to accomplish, and careful deliberation will be required to resolve the matter of which are important enough to fund with public money. Taking a position about what is an unacceptable level of taxes without first being clear about the full nature and scope of the public goods in question is simply narrow-minded and short-sighted. It is to be rejected on pragmatic grounds.

Education is an important public good. But education of children is more than a public good with respect to the right to social justice for the individual children. It is also a public good because an educated populace is in the interest of all to ensure mutual economic well-being and to ensure a strong and viable democracy. Public education has a long history in the U.S., with the very idea originating here. This country led the world in providing public access to education in the early 1800s. Public education, funded by taxes, has been a long-standing collective statement that education of children is a public good. Children participating in public education embody by their participation the development of this public good. Providing access to public education has come to be considered a responsibility or duty of government, not a right that must be demanded.

The history of public education in the U.S. is not limited to primary and secondary education. The Morrill Act of 1862 was a striking statement by the U.S. Congress that higher education is also a public good. By virtue of this Act, the U.S. Congress declared that higher education for those not part of the economic and social elite was a public good. This Act made a strong contribution to the economic well-being of a large part of the U.S. population, and the success of these people contributed to the larger well-being of American society. This Act established a route by which many of the less privileged could work hard and achieve success. It was in the spirit of the American dream, an opportunity for hard work to pay off, for upward economic mobility not to be limited to the inspiring stories of the few who manage to overcome great disadvantages.

If we are solely responsible for our successes in the pursuit of happiness, perhaps we could even defend keeping all our resources for personal use. But if we are not solely responsible, then to the extent that we are not, it is as if we were given the happiness we have. Our collective sense of justice, as well a specifically Christian ethic both say that much is rightly expected of those to whom much is given. Those who have done well in their pursuit of happiness have some obligation to help those who have not done well. Those earning more should pay a disproportionately greater share of the taxes to support public goods. Taxes to support the public good should not fall disproportionately on those less well off.

Public education is important in this country for two reasons, both of which speak to "public goods." The first public good is justice, of reasonably equal opportunity for all, especially children, who are willing to work hard. The second public good is the collective economic good. Reduction of public investment in public education is a reduction in the public good in both senses.

The extent of the role of government in our lives should be considered pragmatically, not ideologically. A pragmatic view judges the value of government actions by the outcomes. One outcome of a minimal role of government is a minimal ability to accomplish public goods of many types. A decreased prioritization of public goods is in effect a diminished sense of social responsibility among citizens. Another outcome would be a greater share of one's income being available for the accomplishment of one's private good. Considered solely from the perspective of the individual in the short term, it is hard for an individual not to see an appeal in this outcome. But the proper role of government, determined by a resolution of the tension between level of taxation and level of public goods, should not be determined without a full consideration of the role of government with respect to the public goods to be valued. Resolving this tension is a matter for careful pragmatic consideration. What appears to be in the interest of an individual in the short term may well not be even in that individual's interest when the sum of private and public goods experienced by that individual are considered.

I suspect that many in this country have taken for granted the ready availability of public goods of many types, losing the ability to perceive these public goods for what they are. Without a clear consideration of the value of public goods it is easy to reduce the level of contributions we ask of ourselves collectively to produce these public goods. I hope we will consider the entire scope of our collective democratic project, and "measure twice" before cutting. Because what would be cut is not limited to taxes and not limited to particular public goods; it involves our individual relationships to our collective society. We run a serious risk of diminishing our collective selves as a people, which may be the most important public good of all. This broad form of public good may be invisible from a myopic view focusing on private goods. I predict that if dramatic reduction of the role of government is accomplished without careful consideration of public goods that are in fact important to all of us, the reduction of public goods will eventually be apparent, visible once again even to those citizens who think that this reduction is a good idea today. Yet even presuming the accuracy of this prediction, I worry about the time it will take to realize what will have been lost and the additional time for remedies to be instituted and accomplished. Of course, my prediction may be wrong. Our diminished sense of the public good may diminish us as a people so thoroughly that we cannot recover the public-spiritedness that has contributed to the greatness of this country.