Categorizing Public Policy

DIFFERENT TYPES OF GOODS

Think for a minute about what it takes to make people happy and satisfied. As we live our daily lives, we experience a range of physical, psychological, and social needs that must be met in order for us to be happy and productive. At the very least, we require food, water, and shelter. In very basic subsistence societies, people acquire these through farming crops, digging wells, and creating shelter from local materials (see Figure). People also need social interaction with others and the ability to secure goods they acquire, lest someone else try to take them. As their tastes become more complex, they may find it advantageous to exchange their items for others; this requires not only a mechanism for barter but also a system of transportation. The more complex these systems are, the greater the range of items people can access to keep them alive and make them happy. However, this increase in possessions also creates a stronger need to secure what they have acquired.

An image of a small house surrounded by a field and several trees.
This Library of Congress photo shows an early nineteenth-century subsistence farm in West Virginia, which once included crops, livestock, and an orchard. (credit: modification of work by the Library of Congress)

Economists use the term goods to describe the range of commodities, services, and systems that help us satisfy our wants or needs. This term can certainly apply to the food you eat or the home you live in, but it can also describe the systems of transportation or public safety used to protect them. Most of the goods you interact with in your daily life are private goods, which means that they can be owned by a particular person or group of people, and are excluded from use by others, typically by means of a price. For example, your home or apartment is a private good reserved for your own use because you pay rent or make mortgage payments for the privilege of living there. Further, private goods are finite and can run out if overused, even if only in the short term. The fact that private goods are excludable and finite makes them tradable. A farmer who grows corn, for instance, owns that corn, and since only a finite amount of corn exists, others may want to trade their goods for it if their own food supplies begin to dwindle.

Proponents of free-market economics believe that the market forces of supply and demand, working without any government involvement, are the most effective way for markets to operate. One of the basic principles of free-market economics is that for just about any good that can be privatized, the most efficient means for exchange is the marketplace. A well-functioning market will allow producers of goods to come together with consumers of goods to negotiate a trade. People facilitate trade by creating a currency—a common unit of exchange—so they do not need to carry around everything they may want to trade at all times. As long as there are several providers or sellers of the same good, consumers can negotiate with them to find a price they are willing to pay. As long as there are several buyers for a seller’s goods, providers can negotiate with them to find a price buyers are willing to accept. And, the logic goes, if prices begin to rise too much, other sellers will enter the marketplace, offering lower prices.

A second basic principle of free-market economics is that it is largely unnecessary for the government to protect the value of private goods. Farmers who own land used for growing food have a vested interest in protecting their land to ensure its continued production. Business owners must protect the reputation of their business or no one will buy from them. And, to the degree that producers need to ensure the quality of their product or industry, they can accomplish that by creating a group or association that operates outside government control. In short, industries have an interest in self-regulating to protect their own value. According to free-market economics, as long as everything we could ever want or need is a private good, and so long as every member of society has some ability to provide for themselves and their families, public policy regulating the exchange of goods and services is really unnecessary.

Some people in the United States argue that the self-monitoring and self-regulating incentives provided by the existence of private goods mean that sound public policy requires very little government action. Known as libertarians, these individuals believe government almost always operates less efficiently than the private sector (the segment of the economy run for profit and not under government control), and that government actions should therefore be kept to a minimum.

Even as many in the United States recognize the benefits provided by private goods, we have increasingly come to recognize problems with the idea that all social problems can be solved by exclusively private ownership. First, not all goods can be classified as strictly private. Can you really consider the air you breathe to be private? Air is a difficult good to privatize because it is not excludable—everyone can get access to it at all times—and no matter how much of it you breathe, there is still plenty to go around. Geographic regions like forests have environmental, social, recreational, and aesthetic value that cannot easily be reserved for private ownership. Resources like migrating birds or schools of fish may have value if hunted or fished, but they cannot be owned due to their migratory nature. Finally, national security provided by the armed forces protects all citizens and cannot reasonably be reserved for only a few.

These are all examples of what economists call public goods, sometimes referred to as collective goods. Unlike private property, they are not excludable and are essentially infinite. Forests, water, and fisheries, however, are a type of public good called common goods, which are not excludable but may be finite. The problem with both public and common goods is that since no one owns them, no one has a financial interest in protecting their long-term or future value. Without government regulation, a factory owner can feel free to pollute the air or water, since he or she will have no responsibility for the pollution once the winds or waves carry it somewhere else (see Figure). Without government regulation, someone can hunt all the migratory birds or deplete a fishery by taking all the fish, eliminating future breeding stocks that would maintain the population. The situation in which individuals exhaust a common resource by acting in their own immediate self-interest is called the tragedy of the commons.

An image of a power plant with large columns of smoke billowing out of its four towers.
Air pollution billows from a power plant before the installation of emission control equipment for the removal of sulfur dioxide and particulate matter. Can you see why uncontrolled pollution is an example of the “tragedy of the commons”?

A second problem with strict adherence to free-market economics is that some goods are too large, or too expensive, for individuals to provide them for themselves. Consider the need for a marketplace: Where does the marketplace come from? How do we get the goods to market? Who provides the roads and bridges? Who patrols the waterways? Who provides security? Who ensures the regulation of the currency? No individual buyer or seller could accomplish this. The very nature of the exchange of private goods requires a system that has some of the openness of public or common goods, but is maintained by either groups of individuals or entire societies.

Economists consider goods like cable TV, cellphone service, and private schools to be toll goods. Toll goods are similar to public goods in that they are open to all and theoretically infinite if maintained, but they are paid for or provided by some outside (nongovernment) entity. Many people can make use of them, but only if they can pay the price. The name “toll goods” comes from the fact that, early on, many toll roads were in fact privately owned commodities. Even today, states from Virginia to California have allowed private companies to build public roads in exchange for the right to profit by charging tolls.David Mildenberg, “Private Toll Road Investors Shift Revenue Risk to States,” 26 November 2013. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2013-11-27/private-toll-road-investors-shift-revenue-risk-to-states (March 1, 2016).

So long as land was plentiful, and most people in the United States lived a largely rural subsistence lifestyle, the difference between private, public, common, and toll goods was mostly academic. But as public lands increasingly became private through sale and settlement, and as industrialization and the rise of mass production allowed monopolies and oligopolies to become more influential, support for public policies regulating private entities grew. By the beginning of the twentieth century, led by the Progressives, the United States had begun to search for ways to govern large businesses that had managed to distort market forces by monopolizing the supply of goods. And, largely as a result of the Great Depression, people wanted ways of developing and protecting public goods that were fairer and more equitable than had existed before. These forces and events led to the increased regulation of public and common goods, and a move for the public sector—the government—to take over of the provision of many toll goods.

3 of 6