Is there a natural market size for club goods?

When people gather and cooperate in the provision of a public good that is available only to their group, it is called a club good. Compared to private goods it is more difficult to track the output of these types of goods. The former can be counted up and traded, which translates into a neat and tidy quantity-vs-price graph. Public goods, like education for example, are made available to everyone. Hence the measure of success depends on the entire team.

Although a group is made up of individuals, for the purposes of tracking achievement, the outcome is a reflection upon everyone. As my son’s baseball coach would say, there is no ‘i’ in team. Or as explains, some nouns are mass nouns like sunshine or water. Even though we have such a strong tendenancy to try to extract the individual as the unit of analysis, we really must account for the group when dealing in club goods.

This leads us to wonder how big the marketplace should be in the collective efforts to, in this case, educate our children. This came to mind today as I was listening to Russ Roberts interview Nassim Nicholas Taleb on a new episode posted at Econ Lib. It sounded like the author of The Black Swan likes to process his ideas for new books by talking them through with Russ on the podcast. The topic today was the optimum size of the State. Here he makes the case for smaller groups.

But, let me make a comment here, why size is central to what we’re discussing. Because people keep using names–state, nation–the size is central.

You do a lot better, I think, meeting a person a thousand times than meeting a thousand persons once. In other words, you’re in a big city like New York City, you walk out, you’re going to see everyday different people. Whereas in a village you’re going to probably encounter the same number of people, assuming you encounter them, it would be the same people. It’s like knowing it’s a friend is a person that you see a thousand times. You see one person a thousand times rather than a thousand strangers once. You see? Things don’t scale properly. There are things that work differently at a lower scale. And, what I’ve discovered while working on volatility models show that why an elephant, for example, is not a large mouse. An elephant is vastly more fragile–


The specific details about who runs into whom are less important than the gist of what he is saying with respect to gauging size. It might be a thousand people or all of Manhattan. What I think is being framed here is a way to identify the size of a community suited to accomplish their goals. And the suggestion is that it must be small enough to allow people with common interests to bump into each other and trade the resources necessary to edge toward an outcome.

As long as all the people interested in educating the kids can come across each other, then they can combine their enthusiasm and skills to foster learning. As long as enough of the folks who depend on transportation networks can give feedback and encourage the appropriate repairs and expansions, then roads and bridges infrastucture will stay up to date. As long as all the people best able to monitor the streets for safety are able to provide feedback to law enforcement, then the compact to protect all citizens will raise to expectations. And on through the list it goes.

As long as the size of the community allows for people to easily do the work of community, then the institutions in place to provide public goods will be backstopped with the resources needed to flourish. At this point, as I understand it, you have found the right size for the school district or the precinct, or the State.