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In order to respond to Sabeel Rahman’s essay, I begin with some distinctions in terminology, the significance of which I will make clear later. The following labels are not meant to do any argumentative work by themselves; the important thing is the distinctions they make.
Public goods: While Rahman uses it more broadly, let’s reserve this for the traditional economics definition, goods that are nonexcludable and nonrivalrous. These are “consumed” individually: I like clean air, and so do you, and so does that person, but we each breathe it separately. The justification behind coercive provision is the aggregate benefit to all of the consumers: if the good could be normally bought and sold, its price as determined by market forces would be higher than the cost of providing it via public action.
Social goods: These are goods with significant returns to scale, sometimes because of straightforward network effects (a telephone increases in value when more people have telephones) and sometimes for more complicated reasons. A bus system is not simply a network good; at a given level of bus service, having more passengers makes riding less attractive, not more. But if having more passengers makes it more cost-effective to increase service, which increases the frequency that buses can run, which makes buses a more attractive transportation option, which attracts more passengers, then the whole virtuous cycle is something like a network effect. Here, enjoyment is not only aggregative: it is not that I like riding the bus or using a telephone, and so do you, and so does that person. When we all do so, we get more out of it. We are still individual consumers, but we benefit from each other’s consumption.
Mixing up the human need not to starve with the needs of democratic citizenship gives the deprivation both too little human value and too much symbolic weight.
Communal goods: While social goods can often shape a whole community, as both communications technology and transportation do, that is not their core purpose. By contrast, within any association, society, or organized group—voluntary or ascriptive, public or private—there are buildings, spaces, celebrations, events, artwork, or rituals that have as a primary purpose the affirmation of the community as a community, signaling continuity with the past, shared membership, something about the community’s meaning or identity, and so on. Civic architecture and monuments may be like this, but so are a congregation’s church or temple and a university’s expensive graduation ceremony. We think of these the wrong way if we imagine conducting a poll of the members and asking, “What would you have been willing to pay for an admissions ticket? Are you getting your money’s worth?” The association or community aims to provide these in a way that shapes their members’ preferences and values, rather than only responding to them: a monument that generates patriotism, a synagogue that inspires devotion, a graduation that cements loyalty to the alma mater.
Necessities and dignity goods: These are ordinary goods whose production and sale are uncomplicated, and that are consumed or enjoyed by individuals who may either depend on the goods for survival or because, in Adam Smith’s words, “the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without” them. Smith used the example of linen shirts and leather shoes, which in his time, though not a matter of life or death, were necessary to go out in public without shame. Smith considered all such good to be necessities, “not only those things which nature, but those things which the established rules of decency have rendered necessary to the lowest rank of people.”
It seems to me that Rahman’s essay deliberately effaces these distinctions, drawing very different kinds of goods under a unified label, with the effect of letting each of the reasons that exist for communal or public provision reinforce each other and seem to apply to all the relevant cases. Necessities become communal goods, not only because access to them shores up dignity or prevents starvation, but because they ensure equality among citizens, defining “the demos itself.” But a person’s reasons for wanting to be decently fed, clothed, and housed are reasons they have as a person. And in a basically functional market economy in which he or she has sufficient income, the person will be decently fed, clothed, and housed. If the person does not have sufficient income, he or she will suffer both deprivation and shame, but those are no more losses qua citizen than they are qua family member, congregant, neighbor, or any other social role or position. Each of an individual’s communities has some reason to help him or her reach a basic threshold, but the polity no more than any other. And as acutely as one feels hunger or the shame of being badly clothed, the absence of food or clothing is symptomatic of the lack of money. If everyone has enough income, then food, housing, and clothing can be ordinary consumer goods—and nothing is gained by treating them otherwise. Mixing up the human need not to starve with the needs of democratic citizenship gives the deprivation both too little human value and too much symbolic weight.
In an era of populist nationalism and incipient authoritarianism, we need to keep people’s attention on the plurality of memberships that they have, the plurality of productive systems from which they benefit, the plurality of provisions they receive.
What do we want in the provision of a good? Is it sufficiency, equality, progress, or simply more? Different answers to these questions call for genuinely different kinds of responses. If we want sufficiency, as we do with dignity goods and necessities, very often we should not pay much attention to the provision of the goods themselves; we should pay attention to the problem of poverty, and worry about economic growth, barriers to entering the labor market, redistribution and poverty relief, or some combination of these. (Direct public provision of food, or indirect provision through food stamps, is certainly not better for recipients’ dignified membership in the community than their having enough money to be able to simply afford food.)
If we want progress over time, it will often be necessary to allow inequality at each point in time, as technological or organizational innovations are experimented with at the more expensive end of a market, some of them diffusing out. This is true even of public goods, which are defined as a kind of technical organizational problem. Sometimes such problems can be solved, as new techniques become available; electronic toll collection (E-ZPass and similar systems) makes it much easier and less disruptive to introduce excludability and pricing to roads, for example. If you imagine a particular necessity or access to a social good becomes so inexpensive relative to incomes that it can be had very easily, there is no problem left. The same is true if the organizational difficulties that define public goods happen to be solvable in some case. If these problems disappear and the goods become ordinary consumer goods thanks to innovation, so much the better.
None of this is true for communal goods. (If you prefer, when thinking of the specifically political subset of these, think of them as civic goods.) They are not technical problems to solve, or individual needs to be met. Their aim is to affirm shared membership and meaning. But in seeing them plainly that way, we can understand that they are also open to entirely legitimate challenge and contestation. Public monuments, memorials, celebrations, and spaces make claims about particular meanings, and they are often meanings that we should be arguing about: Columbus Day, or statues commemorating the Confederacy, to take familiar examples. Communal goods like this are not individually consumed, and should not benefit from the halo effect of the provision of, for example, necessities. In demanding that such a statue be taken down I am not proposing to take food out of a neighbor’s mouth. Making the provision of ordinary goods civic and tying it closely to the demos thus tends to make contestation over the genuinely communal or civic sphere more difficult. It attaches a symbolic character to the democratic state as the source of all good and necessary things that it should not carry.
State actors are generally all too happy to have the people they rule believe that kind of thing. In an era of populist nationalism and incipient authoritarianism, I think we need to be concerned about how to keep people’s attention on the plurality of memberships that they have, the plurality of productive systems from which they benefit, the plurality of provisions they receive. Those who come to believe that all good things come from their membership in the demos believe something nationalistic and false, for example, about their country’s relationship to international and global trade. Those who believe their membership in the demos is constitutive of their social dignity believe something nationalistic and false about direct horizontal connection in civil society. We can take seriously the communal goods of democratic government without seeking to symbolically collapse our subnational and transnational connections and interdependences—through the market as well as through civil society—into a hypertrophied sense of the importance of political membership and provision.
Jacob T. Levy is Tomlinson Professor of Political Theory, Professor of Political Science, and associated faculty in the Department of Philosophy at McGill University. He is the author of Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom.
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