So-called “public goods” are one of the most confusing aspects of economics. But just what is a public good?
In economics, a public good is defined as having three properties:
- It is a good: meaning that it’s a thing people want;
- It is non-rivalrous: meaning that if one person uses it, then another person can use it without taking away the quality or quantity of the good; and
- It is non-excludable: meaning that no one can physically stop other people from using the same thing.
Now, does “culture” satisfy all of the above? Let’s use a quick example.
Let’s say a particular group of people wears a particular type of hat to identify their race or nationality.
You see the hat they wear, and you manage to make what looks like an exact replica. Therefore, the hat isn’t excludable.
Secondly, if you wore the hat and confused others so that they thought you were in the original group, the hat loses it’s value as an identity signal. Therefore, the hat isn’t rivalrous either.
Let’s further stipulate that by wearing the hat, it signalled to local racists that you deserved to be beat up. Assuming you don’t want to be beat up, this means the hat isn’t a good either—it’s a “bad”.
“But,” some might respond. “The hat itself isn’t culture. It’s the appearance of the hat!”
That’s the catch. “Culture”, along with virtually every abstraction, is a mix of information (which is non-rival and [when it’s made public] non-excludable) and material applications of the information.
What many people want to do is to limit the material manifestations of culture. This often involves telling other people what they can and can’t do with their own property.
Note that this same argument applies to lots of other things people typically say are public goods. For example:
- Public transport: A road is rivalrous (it can only fit so many cars) and excludable (using gates, tolls, etc.). Buses and trains are rivalrous and excludable.
- Public health: While herd immunity may be a public good, vaccines and other specific means to attain it are, you guessed it, rivalrous and excludable.
- Education: Teachers, classrooms, seats (or virtual reservations), and diplomas are all excludable. Teachers, classrooms, and seats are also rivalrous: a teacher can’t be at two places at once, a classroom can be used for either a lesson on basket-weaving or a lecture on microeconomics, and generally it’s uncomfortable for more than one person at a time to use the same seat.
- Technology: Specific material tools, such as wrenches, hammers, computers, flash drives, and the like are excludable and rivalrous.
- Knowledge and ideas: So long as knowledge is in your own head, it is excludable. If you put your ideas in a book, that book is also excludable and rivalrous. But if you share your idea publicly, such that other people now know what you know, then knowledge is no longer rivalrous or excludable. You can’t control other people’s thoughts, although intellectual property tries to do just that.