Consider a situation where the positive externalities are so extensive that private firms could not expect to receive any of the social benefit. This kind of good is called a public good. Spending on national defense is a good example of a public good. Let’s begin by defining the characteristics of a public good and discussing why these characteristics make it difficult for private firms to supply public goods. Then we will see how government may step in to address the issue.
The Definition of a Public Good
Economists have a strict definition of a public good, and it does not necessarily include all goods financed through taxes. To understand the defining characteristics of a public good, first consider an ordinary private good, like a piece of pizza. A piece of pizza can be bought and sold fairly easily because it is a separate and identifiable item. However, public goods are not separate and identifiable in this way.
Instead, public goods have two defining characteristics: they are nonexcludable and nonrivalrous. The first characteristic, that a public good is nonexcludable, means that it is costly or impossible to exclude someone from using the good. If Larry buys a private good like a piece of pizza, then he can exclude others, like Lorna, from eating that pizza. However, if national defense is being provided, then it includes everyone. Even if you strongly disagree with America’s defense policies or with the level of defense spending, the national defense still protects you. You cannot choose to be unprotected, and national defense cannot protect everyone else and exclude you.
The second main characteristic of a public good, that it is nonrivalrous, means that when one person uses the public good, another can also use it. With a private good like pizza, if Max is eating the pizza then Michelle cannot also eat it; that is, the two people are rivals in consumption. With a public good like national defense, Max’s consumption of national defense does not reduce the amount left for Michelle, so they are nonrivalrous in this area.
A number of government services are examples of public goods. For instance, it would not be easy to provide fire and police service so that some people in a neighborhood would be protected from the burning and burglary of their property, while others would not be protected at all. Protecting some necessarily means protecting others, too.
Positive externalities and public goods are closely related concepts. Public goods have positive externalities, like police protection or public health funding. Not all goods and services with positive externalities, however, are public goods. Investments in education have huge positive spillovers but can be provided by a private company. Private companies can invest in new inventions such as the Apple iPad and reap profits that may not capture all of the social benefits. Patents can also be described as an attempt to make new inventions into private goods, which are excludable and rivalrous, so that no one but the inventor is allowed to use them during the length of the patent.
Common Resources and the “Tragedy of the Commons”
There are some goods that do not fall neatly into the categories of private good or public good. While it is easy to classify a pizza as a private good and a city park as a public good, what about an item that is nonexcludable and rivalrous, such as the queen conch?
In the Caribbean, the queen conch is a large marine mollusk found in shallow waters of sea grass. These waters are so shallow, and so clear, that a single diver may harvest many conch in a single day. Not only is conch meat a local delicacy and an important part of the local diet, but the large ornate shells are used in art and can be crafted into musical instruments. Because almost anyone with a small boat, snorkel, and mask, can participate in the conch harvest, it is essentially nonexcludable. At the same time, fishing for conch is rivalrous; once a diver catches one conch it cannot be caught by another diver.
Goods that are nonexcludable and rivalrous are called common resources. Because the waters of the Caribbean are open to all conch fishermen, and because any conch that you catch is conch that I cannot catch, common resources like the conch tend to be overharvested.
The problem of overharvesting common resources is not a new one, but ecologist Garret Hardin put the tag “Tragedy of the Commons” to the problem in a 1968 article in the magazine Science. Economists view this as a problem of property rights. Since nobody owns the ocean, or the conch that crawl on the sand beneath it, no one individual has an incentive to protect that resource and responsibly harvest it. To address the issue of overharvesting conch and other marine fisheries, economists typically advocate simple devices like fishing licenses, harvest limits, and shorter fishing seasons. When the population of a species drops to critically low numbers, governments have even banned the harvest until biologists determine that the population has returned to sustainable levels. In fact, such is the case with the conch, the harvesting of which has been effectively banned in the United States since 1986.