The Public Good vs. Public Goods

What is the “common good” that more people on the Right keep referring to these days? Of course, the common or public good is used to signify a wide spectrum of meanings. But let's talk about what it is not.

In modern social science, stemming from its origins in economics, public goods refer to material things that are, functionally or practically speaking, able to be used by many without additional cost and diminishment. Paul Samuelson, for instance, launched a theme of modern economics when he said: “I explicitly assume two categories of goods: ordinary private consumption goods...which can be parceled out among different individuals...and collective consumption goods...which all enjoy in common in the sense that each individual's consumption of such a good leads to no subtraction from any other individual's consumption of that good." 

“Collective consumption goods” are now generally referred to as “public goods”; Samuelson’s definition meant that what made a good public was the fact there was enough of it to go around. Examples approximating a true public good in this sense include fresh air, free broadcast network television, and plentiful species of fish in the ocean.

Even within economics, however, there is an acknowledged wide gradation involving the disputed and complicated meaning of public goods. Of course, most physical goods are, in principle at least, “subtractable” or, to use a synonymous word from economics, “rivalrous”: if I take an apple from the tree and eat it, there is one less apple for others to take; similarly, if I use a shovel, no one else can use it simultaneously. Physical goods are also generally “excludable” insofar as their acquisition or use can often be controlled and limited, especially in lieu of payment. There may be plenty of apples to go around, but they might all be on trees on the other side of a fence. 

The problem is that, when it comes to material goods, in principle they are not actually wholly non-rival or non-excludable; although practically or functionally speaking these might serve as a public good, at least most goods that are physical things are potentially rivalrous and excludable. As economist Richard Musgrave said, “This approach has been subject to the criticism that this case does not exist, or, if at all, applies to defense only; and in fact most goods which give rise to private benefits also involve externalities in varying degrees and hence combine both social and private good characteristics.”

For the American founders, before the rise of the social sciences, and for many younger thinkers on the American Right today, the common or public good means something else entirely. In the ratification debate over the adoption of the Constitution, for instance, the word “goods” was often used to describe physical items of trade, but the founders did not use the plural phrase “public goods” or “common goods,” and it is clear from context that the “public good” and the “common good,” etc., did not refer to physically distributable goods. 

A sign of this is that when they used these terms, they referred to a single entity: the public good, or the common good, or the good of the whole, etc. In political speech today, however, we often speak of public or common goods, and the reason for this seems obvious: we often refer to material things as public or common goods that ought to be divided up in accordance with some notion of distributive justice. The fact that the participants in the ratification used terms that are not applicable to material goods, however, is precisely what makes those terms interesting as evidence for a very different underlying political philosophy.

Whatever the common or public good was for the founding generation, it was not that of modern economics, except, perhaps, insofar as economics recognizes something like national defense as a public good. The economic definition, however, is revelatory in the sense that it attempts to ascribe properties to the public good that can only be said in principle to apply to non-physical things. One can see that the less bodily and the more unitary the good, the more “nonrivalrous” and “nonexcludable” it becomes. The aesthetic beauty of a public building, for example, or free broadcast television thus seem like more perfect public goods than an apple or a fish, and the reason for this seems related to the fact that the former two goods are more “one thing” and also more related to human reason or understanding while the latter two are more bodily in nature, and thus limited.

So what is the common or public good?

In traditional western philosophy, the common good generally refers in the strictest sense to that which is good for one person only if it is good for another, such as the victory of an army in a battle, or the harmony of a choir. In both examples the good of victory or harmony is either achieved by all or none of the soldiers or singers. In the same way, one could call justice in a political regime—insofar as this means the right relation between all the citizens—a common good. Justice is good for many at the same time, albeit in different ways—and yet it remains what it is; peace or tranquility, i.e., the harmony or concord arising from this right relation between the citizenry, is a common good in the same way. 

These public goods in the more philosophic sense are not fully possessed by any one person, but all share in them. The peace of the city or the justice of the laws cannot be said to be mine personally, although I possess them and participate in them personally if I am part of the city. They exist insofar as they exist in individuals, but the individual can only seek and love them insofar as they are common, for they cannot be had in any other way. The more people live in justice and peace, the more justice and peace are increased. Without other people there is no justice or peace in the political sense. Even in an interior sense, in one person, the definition and existence of the two notions depend upon a harmony and right relation of parts within a person.

The public good, then, in the most perfect sense refers to a good of a political community that remains one thing, or is unitary and irreducible, even as many participate in it or possess it in common. At the same time, it is not separate from the individuals who share in it. They possess it insofar as it is common or public. The public good in this older sense is not a material thing, nor a sum total of individual goods. Peace and justice are traditionally understood to be the public goods that comprehend all others for the political regime.

We need to recover these notions. We no longer understand them properly. They are vital if we wish to establish a meaningful way of life in the future.  They are not merely musty abstract ideas from the past but remain true and accessible if we can put aside ideologies that obscure them. We need to learn to see again.


Matthew J. Peterson (@docmjp) is Vice President of Education at the Claremont Institute and Editor of The American Mind. He directs Claremont’s annual fellowships and heads our initiative for a new center to support graduate level scholarship.