April 28, 2010
Today, I starting going through old draft blog posts that died on the vine; a little spring pruning. If there is anything worth saving from the trash folder, I might even publish it. The following passage is one such worthy clip. The strange thing is that I can’t for the life of me recall if (a) it’s a quote from someone else, (b) it’s a paraphrase of someone else’s idea that I read somewhere sometime, or (c) I wrote it my own damn self. (c) seems highly unlikely given that, you know, I don’t remember developing the thought. I was either in so much of a hurry that I didn’t write down the source or I had a moment of clarity that is totally alien to me now that I read it months later. Oh well. Here it is. If you know what it’s from (if it’s from anything), please let me know. My apologies to the clever individual responsible. If it turns out to be me, I’m sure my memory will return post-haste….unless you hate it.
Public goods theory states that non-rivalrous and non-excludable goods (e.g. governance) will be underproduced on a free market. In order to correct this underproduction, the government must step in and coerce free riders into paying, thus assuring adequate funding for the public good.
The consent theory of political obligation says that citizens’ duty to obey the law and the government’s authority are derived from the voluntary agreement of the citizens to be ruled by the government.
One of these theories must be wrong:
If public goods theory is true, then consent theory must be false — if the government coerces free riders, then they cannot consent.
If consent theory is true, then public goods theory must be false — if people fund government voluntarily, then there is no free rider problem.
I can think of a few objections. Can governance be considered a public good, in whole or in part, even in light of private production of law codes? It seems the resulting peace and civility promised would be. Is it necessarily the case that universal voluntary funding doesn’t underproduce governance? So perhaps it’s better to say not that public good theory per se is false if consent theory is true but rather that the prescription for what government should do would, by norm, have to be blocked. Well, FWIW…