Herewith a weekend half-hour read. Comments and corrections appreciated.
A culture survives principally, I think, by the power of its institutions to bind and loose men in the conduct of their affairs with reasons that sink so deep into the self that they become commonly and implicitly understood – with that understanding of which explicit belief and precise knowledge of externals would show outwardly like the tip of an iceberg.
Philip Rieff, 1966. The Triumph of the Therapeutic.1
Did any social scientist know that roughly “half of all species on earth are parasitic on the other half”
Jeroen Bruggeman, Review of Robert Trivers’ Deceit and Self‐Deception.2
It’s uncontroversial that culture is a public good. What other kind of good would it be? It were mostly ignored in contemporary economics until, noticed by its absence it was rebranded ‘social capital’. Language too is a public good. The computer age has given us an excellent metaphor for them. They constitute the operating system for our lives together. But they appear very rarely in economics textbooks as public goods. They don’t really fit the economist’s way of thinking about public goods.
Economists think of public goods is posing a particular kind of social dilemma which has since been refined as ‘the free-rider problem’. David Hume takes up the story in 1739:
Two neighbours may agree to drain a meadow, which they possess in common; because it is easy for them to know each others mind; and each must perceive, that the immediate consequence of his failing in his part, is, the abandoning the whole project. But it is very difficult, and indeed impossible, that a thousand persons should agree in any such action; it being difficult for them to concert so complicated a design, and still more difficult for them to execute it; while each seeks a pretext to free himself of the trouble and expence, and would lay the whole burden on others. Political society easily remedies both these inconveniences. … Thus bridges are built; harbours opened; ramparts raised; canals formed; fleets equipped; and armies disciplined every where, by the care of government.
This received its neoclassical formalisation in 1954 from from Paul Samuelson and, where he defined public goods as ‘collectively consumed’ the contemporary treatment of public goods is well summarised in the canonical quadrant first presented by Richard Musgrave in 1973.3 Continue reading