A couple of days ago, Paul Krugman took Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal to task on his response to President Barack Obama’s Tuesday night speech. In his response, Jindal criticized the government for its wasteful spending, highlighting two examples: $140 million spent on volcano monitoring and $8 billion for high speed rail projects, including a magnetic levitation line from Las Vegas to Disneyland. Setting aside the accuracy of the claims regarding the two projects (people on both sides of the debate have challenged both the figures and the accuracy of the description of the two projects), Jindal’s criticism does point to an interesting and important questions. What should the government be doing?
This simple question is at the heart of the political and philosophical divide between conservatives and progressives in American politics. Conservatives echo Jindal’s sentiment that, “The strength of America is not found in our government. It is found in the compassionate hearts and the enterprising spirit of our citizens” (which itself is a refrain of President Ronald Reagan’s famous statement, “Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.”) Progressives argue that government should play an active role in ensuring all Americans enjoy certain basic and fundamental rights, including livelihood.
Beyond these philosophical differences, however, Krugman rightly points out that historically conservatives and progressives agreed that the government also had a role in addressing collective goods problems. Collective goods are characterized by two important features which differentiate them from other goods. They are non-rivalrous and non-exclusive. Non-rivalry means that one person’s use of the good does not diminish another person’s ability to use that same good. Non-exclusivity means that it is not possible to prevent people who have not paid for that good from benefitting from the provision of that good. The classic example of a collective good in international relations is national defense. Because of these two characteristics, the private market generally under-produces collective goods. Both progressives and conservatives thus agree that the state should provide for public goods like national defense.
Here’s the problem, though. Volcano monitoring is clearly an example of a public good. We have a collective interest in ensuring that communities living near volcanoes have sufficient warning in the event of an eruption. And clearly the market will tend to under-produce volcano monitoring, as it exhibits the characteristics of a collective good: one person knowing about a forthcoming eruption does not prevent others from having the same knowledge, and it is not practical to warn only those who have contributed to the volcano monitoring of a forthcoming eruption. High speed rail may be a bit more complicated, but most rail networks rely to a greater or lesser extent on public financing, primarily because of the nature of rail transit itself (lending itself to monopolistic characteristics).
At the international level, though the problem is even more difficult. At the domestic level, we can look to the state to provide collective goods—assuming, of course, that we can agree on what they are. At the international level, there is no overarching authority to look to. The nature of the international system thus makes collective goods even more difficult to provide. Indeed, historically the provision of collective goods at the international level has tended to rely on the goodwill and desires of a particularly powerful state (e.g., through hegemonic stability theory), or through difficult and convoluted negotiations around national interests. The lack of a higher authority with the ability to enforce its decisions means that states (behaving rationally) would hope to free ride on the goodwill and generosity of others. But if all states do that, the collective good will be under-provided.
And thus the difficulty of international negotiations. The problem of global climate change exhibits many of the characteristics of a collective good. Yet states have incredible difficulty in reaching consensus on developing a framework to address the problem of climate change. International negotiations underway this year are intended to develop a post-Kyoto framework to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. The likelihood of success will depend on the degree to which states can address the collective good dilemma that characterize talks in this area. And if progressives and conservatives in the United States can’t agree that volcano monitoring is a collective good, I’m afraid that any real agreement at the global level around the issue of climate change may prove even more elusive.
You can see Barack Obama’s speech on the MSNBC website . A transcript is available at the official White House website. The video of Bobby’s Jinal’s response as well as the transcript of his speech are both available at his official website.