The Public Goods Fairy?


In a characteristically thoughtful post, Will Wilkinson muses that the most vital public goods aren't the sort of things that either states or markets provide, since they are preconditions for the smooth functioning of both states and markets—things like a baseline level of social trust and norms of civic responsibility and non-predation, especially among those in positions of authority. For those with an eye to helping the developing world get developed, the vital question becomes: Where do these "higher order" public goods come from?

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  1. Totally Off Topic:

    Julian, I just found out that you broke the John Lott/Mary Rosh story. Well done.

  2. Things like “social trust”, “civic responsibility”, and “non predation” are indeed public goods. But it is not true that “…in order for states to provide anything other than abuse, these things have to already be in place.” They don’t. They can’t be. They are built up gradually in a state and society that works gradually better and better over time in a mutually reinforcing ‘bootstrap’ process.

    How quickly can this process happen? Can it be accelerated? There are at least a few reasons to believe that it can. For example, immigrants from places without these goods quickly learn and internalize them when living where they exist. Also, part of what American ‘cultural imperialism’ has exported (even if inadvertantly), is an understanding of what a society with these attributes looks and feels like (for example, criminals the world over expect to be read their Miranda rights just as people the world over sometimes dial 9-1-1 instead of their own emergency numbers).

    These factors may help, but there’s no doubt that creation of a functioning civil society is a daunting task in a place like Iraq.

  3. Yup. Have had similar thoughts myself. Memes that encourage a stable, open society should be, well, encouraged. We should reflect on the good ones we have inherited from societies since the enlightenment and give thanks.

    So, is there a way to force these memes into those societies that seem to be rejecting them? I doubt it. Hope they wake up and smell the (lack of) coffee.

  4. Mark Weaver and TJ are on the right track. For more, check out

  5. The ideal society for nurturing norms of social trust and responsibility is a non-coercive social order based on voluntary cooperation, in which people internalize all benefits and costs of their own choices. All form of coercive intervention benefit some people at the expense of others, and thus break the link between behavior and conseqences. Once people see influencing the institution with a monopoly on legitimate force as the key to achieving their goals, rather than fulfilling their own promises and returning good for good, trust is impossible.

  6. I guess Kevin said the same thing, but “social trust” and “civic responsibility” are outgrowths or lots and lots of personal trust and personal responsibility. I don’t think there’s any “state” than can create those, though most states certainly undermine them.

  7. Above should read “of” ratehr than “or”.

  8. Sure, Kevin, sure. But when someone is already pointing a gun at your head, the natural inclination is to try to shoot him first and worry about noncoercion later, sad to say.

  9. EMAIL:
    DATE: 02/27/2004 05:15:40
    A person never tells you anything until contradicted.

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