, in Edward N. Zalta: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Serie Fall 2021, Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, USA, 6-2021
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Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
The government plays a significant role in providing goods such as national defence, infrastructure, education, security, and fire and environmental protection almost everywhere. These goods are often referred to as ?public goods?. Public goods are of philosophical interest because their provision is, to varying degrees, essential to the smooth functioning of society?economically, politically, and culturally?and because of their close connection to problems concerning the regulation of externalities and the free-rider problem. Without infrastructure and their protection goods cannot be exchanged, votes cannot be cast, and it would be harder to enjoy the fruits of cultural production. There is widespread agreement among political philosophers that some level of education is required for democracy to be effective. Due to their connection to externalities and the free-rider problem, the provision of public goods raises profound economic and ethical issues.
As we will see in Section 1, the economic definition of a public good has little to do with whether these goods are provided by the public or by private enterprises but with certain abstract features that are shared by many different goods, only some of which are regularly produced publicly. The abstract features economists use in their definition depend on technology, values and tastes, making boundaries contested and shifting over time. Section 2 will introduce the notion of an externality, and in Section 3 the standard neoclassical welfare economic analysis of public goods will be examined. Section 4 looks at the private provision of public goods. Section 5 offers a review of recent experimental work on public goods (which challenges the standard analysis to some extent). Section 6, finally, discusses some ethical arguments relevant to the provision of public goods.