The Weekly Abolitionist: Public Good or Public Bad?

If you ask an economist to suggest areas where the state should be involved, one answer you’re likely to hear is that states should provide “public goods.” A public good is a good that is both non-excludable and non-rival. By non-excludable, economists mean that once the good is produced individuals cannot be excluded from consuming it, regardless of whether they pay. A good is non-rival if one person’s consumption of the good does not deplete the good for other people.

One classic example of a public good is national defense. If a defensive force is warding off an army that would otherwise invade our community, they can’t simply protect my neighbor’s home and not mine. Protecting the region protects us both, even if one of us pays for the defense and the other doesn’t. Yet my receiving that defense does nothing to deplete the supply of that defense for my neighbors.

Deterring street crimes also functions as a public good in this way. If assaults are less likely to happen on my street, everyone on the street benefits from the lowered risk of assault. And my not being assaulted doesn’t make my neighbor any more likely to be assaulted.

Once economists realize that defense and security are largely public goods, they conclude that they will be underprovided by market mechanisms. Someone selling national defense services, for example, will have at least some customers who realize that they can receive the benefits of defense without paying this provider. If enough people choose this option, then the service may not be provided at all, or at least it will be provided less than the consumers of the service would prefer. So, the economists conclude, defense should be provided by the state. The state will use taxation to resolve the problem of free riders choosing to benefit from the service without paying. These free riders will be threatened with audits, arrest, and incarceration if they do not pay, and this coercion will prevent free-riding, enabling the government to produce the public good.

Many economists, political commentators, and ordinary citizens end the analysis there. But they shouldn’t. Because the “good” that the state chooses to provide may not be so good after all. Suppose that instead of merely defending against invasions, the state uses its “national defense” budget to bomb weddings, insert deadly cluster bombs into a conflict, or subsidize the use of child soldiers. There’s nothing hypothetical about this, as all of these are contemporary applications of American “defense” spending. I would argue that these expenditures don’t make us better off. Instead, they provoke hatred and extremism that make us more vulnerable. Moreover, for many of us, these actions make our world less just, less like a world we want to live in. In these instances, defense spending is not providing a “public good” but rather a “public bad.” Economists Christopher Coyne and Stephen Davies have identified numerous other “public bads” associated with war and empire.

Similarly, the criminal justice system can also create public bads. While the criminal justice system imposes an order on society, that order may be one that citizens prefer or it may be one that citizens find less desirable than the alternative. Elinor Ostrom describes how police action can create costs for some citizens and benefits for others, thus simultaneously producing a “public good” and a “public bad”:

When the police respond to a complaint about a disturbance in a residential neighborhood, they may provide a service to some residents and a disservice to others. Some people find an empty, quiet street most “orderly” and have a strong preference for living in such neighborhoods. Others prefer a busy, noisy street full of friends and acquaintances. A particular street cannot be empty and busy, quiet and noisy at the same time. Whichever form of “order” is provided, some individuals will perceive the state of affairs as a benefit and others as a cost. Thus, while public provision of police services may provide joint benefits to some individuals, some joint costs will also be imposed as individuals receive services which they would prefer to avoid.

Ostrom notes that the potential for joint costs will be even worse when police attempt to impose conventional morality through prohibitions on activities such as gambling, drug use, abortion, or sex work. By deterring many prospective providers of these goods or services, prohibition tends to raise the price. This creates protected profits for some black market businesses, such as drug cartels. This can lead to bribery, corruption, unequal enforcement of laws, and other unsavory outcomes that may be perceived as “public bads” even by those who initially supported the prohibitionist policy.

Recognizing that the criminal justice system can create public bads provides an important tool for evaluating the criminal justice system. We should not simply measure whether police, prosecutors, and prisons have successfully deterred behaviors that have been designated as crimes. For in doing so they may have made people worse off rather than better off. Elinor Ostrom warns against falling into “the trap of assessing police departments as highly efficient when citizens consider the output they receive to be public bads rather than public goods.” Generating substantial outputs doesn’t necessarily mean improving society; it might mean the opposite.

As anti-racist scholars and activists such as Michelle Alexander and Angela Davis have repeatedly noted, the costs of the criminal justice system disproportionately fall on marginalized people, particularly people of color. As Christopher Coyne and Abigail Hall-Blanco note in a recent paper, members of minority groups are limited in their access to both “voice” and “exit,” which makes them more likely to bear the costs of state violence:

For many, exiting a community where police militarization is prevalent may be unviable due to financial constraints. Consider that Hispanics are more than twice as likely, and blacks almost three times more likely, to live in deep poverty as whites (National Center for Law and Economic Justice 2015). Given these circumstances, the option to exit is not feasible for many. As a result, these individuals become even more vulnerable to state tools of social control.

There is reason to believe that the “voice” mechanism is also weak for racial minorities. One study, for instance, found that increased racial segregation leads to a decrease in black civic efficacy. The authors note that relatively segregated black communities are often represented by politicians who fail to vote for policies favored by black constituents (Ananat and Washington 2007). Ferguson illustrates this concept well. While 67 percent of residents are black, there are nearly no black political figures (Smith 2014). Taken together, the lack of voice and exit opportunities means that minority groups are often the least able to avoid the adverse costs and consequences of militarized police forces.

So the public bads associated with police militarization, mass incarceration, and criminal law are likely to most impact those who are already marginalized. When politicians choose whose preferences to consider in crafting laws that will create joint costs for some and joint benefits for others, they’re likely to impose those joint costs on people of color.

The state is not a benevolent despot, it is not a tool of angels, and it is not a unicorn. Rather than assuming that the state’s police, prisons, and military forces will competently produce public goods, we should consider the reality that they produce numerous public bads. And given the devastating impact that these public bads have on some of the most vulnerable people in our society, we should consider radical solutions. We should consider abolitionist solutions.

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Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory