December 10, 2003

Public Goods

Will Wilkinson is on to something here, I think. He discusses the idea of higher order public goods, upon the existence of which the provision of other public goods is predicated.

It's an important point — you can't just expect governments, or markets for that matter, to provide public goods like sewage systems, roads, health care, etc. without supporting norms and other internalized rules that make the provision of the other goods possible. Figuring out what those primary, necessary goods are is a challenge for those hoping to promote liberalism in the developing world.

In my mind, this is where Hernando de Soto's work in Peru comes in: The Other Path and The Mystery of Capital. Private property and the non-arbitrary enforcement of contracts may not be the ultimate public good-producing foundation that Wilkinson is looking for — but in my mind they play a pivotal role in the edifice of institutions that holds political liberalism and market economies together. They work in both directions, simultaneously acting to build and reinforce social norms and providing the framework on which more complicated institutions can be built.

Posted by richard at December 10, 2003 05:21 PM

Sounds like a Robert Mugabe apologist. He argued yesterday that his country isn't yet ready for freedom of speech, as opposition (funded by the US and UK) undermines his effort to lift up his people.

I won't deny that picking up a new democracy by its own bootstraps is a challenge. But doesn't it seem dangerous to prioritize some public goods or rights as more equal than others? (When is security good enough to allow freedom of speech? Invest in health care? Education?) I don't have the answer.

Posted by: Michael Weiksner at December 11, 2003 08:26 AM

That's like saying chemistry doesn't really matter because we know it's built on top of physics.

To your point about Mugabe, there is empirical evidence from Africa (Uganda in particular), that outlawing political parties can be beneficial in the crucial stages of post-colonial transition from tribal to national allegiance.

Sure, someone can latch on to the statement and claim it justifies their actions, but they, like you, would be confusing descriptive arguments with normative ones. Denying the evidence or avoiding the issue doesn't help anyone, and accepting it or trying to put it into a framework, doesn't excuse anyone. The answer to eugenics is not to deny that genetics exists — the answer is to attack it on moral grounds.

Mugabe can be refuted because he's done nothing to help the specific fundamental goods that I mentioned — in fact, he's done a lot to destroy norms about private property and has added a great deal of arbitrary-ness to the enforcement of contracts and the rule of law in general. His thugs are not paving the way for future nation that is "ready" for freedom of speech.

Posted by: richard at December 11, 2003 12:34 PM