I’ve been touring Europe with my son for the last couple of weeks. It’s been fun. I don’t have much time but thought I’d put down this marker. It’s nothing really new, but one of my objections to the way in which much of the right develop their ideas on governments’ provision of public goods is that they’re somehow a fixed set of duties – and of course ones that are terribly susceptible to ‘creep’. This means that new departures in government activity are always looked on askance. We must be vigilant against this creeping extension of government functions. Of course they have a point. Governments immediately rushing to the rescue with soundbites, and often a ‘plan’ whenever something nasty turns up on the news is not a pretty sight.
Nevertheless the implication is usually that the role of the state should be largely frozen in time. It’s a night watchman. It enforces laws, might do some redistribution or at least poor relief, but elsewhere governments venture at their (or perhaps our) peril.
Yet with social and technological change the nature of public goods is always evolving – as is the nature of private goods. Two of the sights we’ve seen mark the evolution of public goods which was such a crucial part of the development of our modern economy. We visited the Bank of England on Threadneedle St (I thought it had a museum of monetary history, which I was happy to take Alex to, but alas it turned out to be a museum of the Bank of England which was not so suitable for a 14 year old) and Greenwich. Both were sites were new public goods evolved. Harrison’s clocks delivered a means of measuring longitude at sea (am I the only one who’s gone through his whole life pronouncing longitude as longDitude? How did that happen?). And the Bank of England evolved from a private consortium lending funding the public debt to a central bank.
And today we are evolving new publc goods – many, as with the Bank of England initially – via private endeavour. And governments and those in private endeavour will need to continue experimenting to develop the public goods of the future.