Sunday, March 15, 2009

What Should Government Do?

One I'd missed in reaction to Jindal's response to Obama's joint address.

But both sides, I thought, agreed that the government should provide public goods — goods that are nonrival (they benefit everyone) and nonexcludable (there’s no way to restrict the benefits to people who pay.) The classic examples are things like lighthouses and national defense, but there are many others. For example, knowing when a volcano is likely to erupt can save many lives; but there’s no private incentive to spend money on monitoring, since even people who didn’t contribute to maintaining the monitoring system can still benefit from the warning. So that’s the sort of activity that should be undertaken by government.

So what did Bobby Jindal choose to ridicule in this response to Obama last night? Volcano monitoring, of course.

And leaving aside the chutzpah of casting the failure of his own party’s governance as proof that government can’t work, does he really think that the response to natural disasters like Katrina is best undertaken by uncoordinated private action? Hey, why bother having an army? Let’s just rely on self-defense by armed citizens.

The intellectual incoherence is stunning. Basically, the political philosophy of the GOP right now seems to consist of snickering at stuff that they think sounds funny. The party of ideas has become the party of Beavis and Butthead.


  1. I don't know much about Jindal, but I do know that both lighthouses and national defense are not pure public goods. According to the common definition, somewhat similar to his, there is hardly any good at all that's really a public good or service.

    The best thing government can do for natural disasters is encourage people not to live near them, i.e. don't build a weak barrier to protect people who live below sea level...encourage them to move elsewhere before the disaster even happens. Same with a volcano.

  2. so no one should be living on say the wasatch front, since there's a potential for natural disaster with it being on a fault line? also, how are light houses and national defense rivaled or excludable? or perhaps a better question is what are you calling the common definition of a public good?

  3. Good point, Craig. Maybe we shouldn't be living on a fault line. My point is that maybe government should encourage us not too live right on top of the fault line, but, in the end, it's our choice. And, when a natural disaster happens, the people can know they've been warned and that government isn't going to help them because government can't help them very efficiently, in most cases.

    Re: public goods, we'd have to have a lot of room to discuss that. I've read and written 20 page papers just about lighthouses and beehives. I agree with the definition given above (non-rivalrous and non-excludable), but light houses and defense are not pure public goods. One brief example: national defense is not even close to non-rivalrous. The military does not have, and cannot have, unlimited resources. It's impossible for it to protect every single person that ever needs protection. It must choose to serve whoever it believes has the greatest need of protection. Protecting one person diminishes the availability of that service for another. It's also excludable because the military can choose not to protect anybody at any given time. Light houses are closer to a public good but still aren't pure public goods. There are ways to offer private light house services.