Debunking the Public and the Private

How can it be that back in 1985 Tyler Cowen debunked the definitions of public and private goods in a paper, PUBLIC GOODS DEFINITIONS AND THEIR INSTITUTIONAL CONTEXT: A CRITIQUE OF PUBLIC GOODS THEORY, written while at Harvard? That was, let’s see, thirty-seven years ago. And yet the old lighthouse is still being pulled out as an example of a public good.

He quite easily shows how every good may be excluded and hence economic goods do not sort by this idea of all of this being a public good and all of that being a private good.

As we shall later argue; “publicness” and “privateness” should not be considered per se attributes of economic goods. The purpose of this paper is to tinker with the definition of public goods and show that nearly every good can be classified as either public or private depending upon the institutional framework surrounding the good and the conditions of the good’s production.’

He goes on to show how within the shades of useage of a good. A park may start out open to all but then be taken over by a select group whether they be hoodlums or elitest. But maybe more importantly he points out that all goods are subject to resource constraints. A ballistic missile can only shield one set of citizens.

Traditional public goods such as national defense can be turned into private goods by a similar twist. Even if a nation’s entire nuclear umbrella may rightfully be considered a public good, a single anti-ballistic missile is far less public, for it can only service a limited number of individuals in a limited manner.*

I am taken aback that I am just coming across this now.