Reading: Positive Externalities and Public Goods


Private markets, such as the cell phone industry, offer an efficient way to put buyers and sellers together and determine what goods are produced, how they are produced, and who gets them. The principle that voluntary exchange benefits both buyers and sellers is a fundamental building block of the economic way of thinking. But what happens when a voluntary exchange affects a third party who is neither the buyer nor the seller?

As an example, consider a concert producer who wants to build an outdoor arena that will host country music concerts a half-mile from your neighborhood. You will be able to hear these outdoor concerts while sitting on your back porch—or perhaps even in your dining room. In this case, the sellers and buyers of concert tickets may both be quite satisfied with their voluntary exchange, but you have no voice in their market transaction. The effect of a market exchange on a third party who is outside or “external” to the exchange is called an externality. Because externalities that occur in market transactions affect other parties beyond those involved, they are sometimes called spillovers.

Externalities can be negative or positive. If you hate country music, then having it waft into your house every night would be a negative externality. If you love country music, then what amounts to a series of free concerts would be a positive externality.

Positive Externalities in Public Health Programs

One of the most remarkable changes in the standard of living in the last several centuries is that people are living longer. Thousands of years ago, human life expectancy is believed to have been in the range of 20 to 30 years. By 1900, average life expectancy in the United States was 47 years. By the start of the twenty-first century, U.S. life expectancy was 77 years. Most of the gains in life expectancy in the history of the human race happened in the twentieth century.

The rise in life expectancy seems to stem from three primary factors. First, systems for providing clean water and disposing of human waste helped to prevent the transmission of many diseases. Second, changes in public behavior have advanced health. Early in the twentieth century, for example, people learned the importance of boiling bottles before using them for food storage and baby’s milk, washing their hands, and protecting food from flies. More recent behavioral changes include reducing the number of people who smoke tobacco and precautions to limit sexually transmitted diseases. Third, medicine has played a large role. Immunizations for diphtheria, cholera, pertussis, tuberculosis, tetanus, and yellow fever were developed between 1890 and 1930. Penicillin, discovered in 1941, led to a series of other antibiotic drugs for bringing infectious diseases under control. In recent decades, drugs that reduce the risks of high blood pressure have had a dramatic effect in extending lives.

These advances in public health have all been closely linked to positive externalities and public goods. Public health officials taught hygienic practices to mothers in the early 1900s and encouraged less smoking in the late 1900s. Many public sanitation systems and storm sewers were funded by government because they have the key traits of public goods. In the twentieth century, many medical discoveries came out of government or university-funded research. Patents and intellectual property rights provided an additional incentive for private inventors. The reason for requiring immunizations, phrased in economic terms, is that it prevents spillovers of illness to others—as well as helping the person immunized.