I found this passage somewhere on the Internet, unknown author:

This morning I was awoken by my alarm clock powered by electricity generated by the public power monopoly regulated by the U.S. Department of Energy. I then took a shower in the clean water provided by the municipal water utility. After that, I turned on the TV to one of the FCC-regulated channels to see what the National Weather Service of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration determined the weather was going to be like using satellites designed, built, and launched by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. I watched this while eating my breakfast of the U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected food and taking the drugs which have been determined safe by the Food and Drug Administration.

At the appropriate time as regulated by the U.S. Congress and kept accurate by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the U.S. Naval Observatory, I get into my National Highway Traffic Safety Administration-approved automobile and set out to work on the roads built and maintained by the local, state, and federal departments of transportation, possibly stopping to purchase additional fuel of quality level determined by the Environmental Protection Agency, using legal tender issued by the Federal Reserve System. On the way out the door, I deposit any mail I have to be sent out via the U.S. Postal Service and drop the kids off at the public school.

After work, I drive my NHTSA car back home on the DOT roads, to a house that has not burned down in my absence because of the state and local building codes and fire marshal’s inspection, and which has not been plundered of all its valuable thanks to the local police department.

I then log on to the Internet, which was developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration and post on freerepublic.com and FOX News forums about how SOCIALISM in medicine is BAD because government can’t do anything right.

What this passage is getting at is the myriad functions that government serves— sometimes unbeknown to the general public—and it only begins to scratch the surface. It would, I think, be pretty safe to say government is responsible for or at least crucially linked to the development of modern society, not free markets. That’s just a descriptive statement, and I believe the main point of the quoted passage. There are some, like those “on freerepublic.com and FOX News forums,” who bemoan government and its supposed inefficiency, yet take for granted all the things it provides them (like roads and police protection).

The question, really, is an economic one. One issue that arises concerns what are called public goods. In technical terms, a public good is any “good that is non-rivalrous and non-excludable.” All non-rivalrous means is that when one person uses that good another person is not restricted from also using that good (e.g., when I log on to the Internet, this does not preclude you from doing the same). All non-excludable means is that no one wanting access to the good can be reasonably denied access to that good. A decent example might lighthouse beams that provide light to ships, regardless of which ship it might be (that is, it’s difficult to exclude other people from seeing this light). As the Wikipedia article points out, “there may be no such thing as an absolutely non-rivaled and non-excludable good; but economists think that some goods approximate the concept closely enough for the analysis to be economically useful.” (The economic idea of public goods, by the way, was developed by Paul Samuelson, the pioneering Nobel laureate who died just three weeks ago.)

The problem that arises is that public goods are not produced efficiently in “free markets.” They’re under-produced. This causes what is called market failure; the market does not operate efficiently. The reason for this is because you can’t make a profit off of it, or not very much the closer the good approaches the concept of a public good. If a good produces a benefit to society that the creator of the good cannot profit from, there’s little economic incentive to produce such a good. That’s standard neoclassical economic theory, anyway. The idea is tied to what are called externalities. A positive externality is something people benefit from, e.g. clean air, but those who benefit from it don’t necessarily have to pay for it. An example I get from Milton Friedman, the great free-market thinker, is that when I plant a pretty garden in my front yard, other people get to experience the benefit of it without having to pay or do any work for it. Again, these are under-produced in free markets, according to standard theory, because there is not enough economic incentive to produce these things.

Well, one solution has been to have the government produce goods for public use, which is where the entire passage quoted above comes from. The result is that we all get to benefit from government involvement in the market place. I get the ability to tell the precise time because the government has taken the initiative to keep accurate account of time—something theory tells us profit-maximizing corporations would be unwilling to do.

At the same time, however, as the story above illustrated, people still bemoan government and its attempts to provide for the public good. The market is great, it will provide us all the things we need, and it will do so efficiently, they might say. The socialist might respond by pointing out that this is not necessarily true, and point to things like externalities and asymmetric information, which exist nearly everywhere, and conclude the market rarely works efficiently. For this reason, we need the government to provide for the public good, particularly when the unfettered market cannot. The right-winger (if they’re not Austrian) might concede that things like externalities and asymmetric information exist but posit that the government still ought not get involved because that would constitute an abridgment of our freedom, is coercive, evil, etc. The question becomes harder. Indeed, for many the question is not only economic but also ethical. At this point, I think most people begin to ask what the right balance is between market forces and government involvement. The question is left unanswered and, in mind, the answer remains to be seen.