Deliberately constructed public or common goods differ in what they require of participants in several different ways. The following are typical of their diversity:
1. To solve conflicts of interests that tend to produce disadvantageous results for all the participants if they fail to cooperate, but positive goods if the do.
2. To produce positive goods that benefit almost everybody, but which private enterprise cannot as easily produce.
3. To provide coordinated action to avert evils that are the result from unregulated action.
Examples and discussion:
1. A simple example: Jack and Jill from Leeds want to go on holiday together and enjoy each other’s company. But when it comes to making arrangements Jack says he wants to go to Prague, while Jill wants to go to the Costa Brava. Being sensible people the do not adopt the facile solution of tossing a coin to see who wins this year, with the promise that he or she will be given first choice next year. That simply equalises the misery of being dragged to a place one doesn’t want to go to.
Instead they interrogate each other about their reasons for their choice. Jack says he wants to go somewhere that has an interesting architectural history, where he has not been before. Jill says she wants to relax and laze in the sun. That reminds Jack of reading Julius Norwich on Sicily. So he suggests Palermo to suit them both and give them plenty of time together. Win-win.
Of course, there is no guarantee that all such problems can be settled as felicitously as that. In social life things are much more complicated. However, the point is that it is almost always worthwhile to attempt to get behind raw preferences to open up the range of possibilities available. That involves spelling out in detail in the particular instance just what are the various costs and benefits the various participants need to achieve or avoid. in that context attempt to develop arrangements that are accepted as fair and offer to each as much as possible of what they want. There is no conceivable mechanical procedure for doing this. Clearly, it tends to involve a good deal of time, effort and cooperation.
It is of crucial importance that the process of negotiation proceed without the intrusion of the adventitious threats of and promises that are involved in power-trading. The only ground on which the conclusion of the process claims attention is that it is as sound a resolution of the problem as one could hope to get, and more advantageous to almost everybody than any other mode of arriving at a collective decision. Only in that way can a solution achieve the status of a public good, a common achievement of which the community can be proud, rather than an arrangement imposed by superior force.
Of course, in our real world where force of one kind or another is the salient ground for imposing solutions to many problems, it is optimistic to think that that cooperative procedures are likely to be seen as practically possible to achieve. Imposed solutions have the obvious advantage in many matters of offering a quick solution, where cooperative agreement takes too long. Or it appears too slow when the issues are framed in the simplistic rhetoric of war against some imminent evil. Unfortunately agreements based on threats and promise almost invariably leads to counterproductive decisions, because they rest on simplistic views of the problem they purport to solve. If a decison is to be effective it must get the situation right.
2. An obvious example is a well-coordinated public transport system. One fundamental problem about such as system is that it affects not just present patterns of demand, but the evolution of future patterns of demand. Differences of design will inevitably favour some developments, land uses, housing patterns, industrial and institutional enteprises and ecological consequences over others. Some such consequences are bound to be desirable and others undesirable from different point so view. It cannot be assumed that all of these desirable or undesirable consequences are reflected satisfactorily in judgements about future profitability to the entrepreneurs, especially in a capitalist economy that is ruled by short-term returns to investors.
Discussion of such matters as a transport system can only achieve a useful focus by offering comments on competing comprehensive proposals. In general this process proceeds in the opposite direction from the sort of case discussed in 1. above. It depends on the discussants being supplied with proposals that inevitably frame the debate. Ideally, those proposals should exhibit the major practical possibilities and their projected costs. They need to be drawn up by experts who have the technical knowledge to know what configurations are workable and what they cost to build and run. Debate can then proceed to consider which proposal offers most value or has the most desirable prospects.
Such considerations of relative desirability inevitably involve conflicting considerations of much the same sort as in 1. and similar procedures of cooperative negotiation to resolve them, but the emphasis needs to be very strongly focussed on the workability of the system and its long-term effects, rather than on meeting the preferences of the present population. Once again there is no simple procedure for getting these things right. Distancing the debate from power-trading and vote-catching is clearly necessary, but not sufficient to assure a good outcome. We have to rely on a well-informed public opinion converging on a sound evaluation of what is desirable.
3. A salient example of averting an imminent danger is action to halt the accelerating momentum of climate change. The broad trend of global warming may be clear enough, but he projected effects of its causes and the remedies required to deal with them are matters that only a few specialists can assess with any authority. What they tell us is that the results of doing nothing are almost certainly going to be catastrophic, and the costs of effective action are considerable.
The impacts that those costs can have on various economies and lifestyles are not only very diverse, but very difficult to compare with each other. It seems that there can be no such thing as a win-win outcome in these matters. When it comes to assigning burdens there are no positive pay-offs to provide a shared incentive to cooperate. So it does seem that an authority with strong claims to impartiality, wielding strong sanctions against free-loader is necessary. In order to avoid fatal distrust, it is necessary that such a body be representative of all the major interests involved. But at the same time it is crucial that the bearers of that authority do not see their task as one of maximising the interest they represent, but of reaching as fair a distribution of burdens as possible. It is here that sortition is particularly valuable, not just in assuring representation of all major interests, but in avoiding pressure on representatives to put the advancement of the interest they represent before the interests of reaching a fair allocation of burdens. At least they are not indebted to anybody for their position. They must realise that if they fail in their task the results for everybody, including their own interests are likely to be very bad indeed.
Filed under: Theory |