Tutoring Ms. Coppola on public goods.

Twitter doesn’t allow the more detailed examination of matters so, something I can link to from there.

Frances Coppola is insistent that music is a public good. The origin of this was about music degrees and how folk don’t make much out of having done one. Because, music is a public good, d’ye see?

The background to this argument is that there are sensible and reasonable arguments to say that public goods are underproduced in a purely market economy. It’s rather like the opposite of the externalities argument. Or perhaps we have positive externalities here which are not included in market prices. Just as negative externalities should be taxed or regulated away – which we use just depends upon the details of what we’re talking about – so we might want an intervention into the production of public goods.

The definition of this public good is not something good for the public, not something the public thinks is good to get. It’s highly specific – it must be something non-rivalrous and non-excludable. The mandatory citation from Wikipedia:

Note the “cannot”. It is not sometimes isn’t, often not, it’s cannot.

The standard exemplar is vaccination and that’s wrong. Because a vaccine, as we’ve all just found out, can be given to someone or not – it’s excludable. Also, since we’ve been having shortages it’s also obviously rivalrous. If one person gets one then another can’t have that same one – that’s what rivalry means and we can only have shortages of something extant if that is true.

The public good is the herd immunity of that necessary percentage of the population being vaccinated. Once that has happened then there is no way that we can exclude someone from gaining that benefit. Whether they’re vaccinated or not they enjoy that safety of being in a population the disease cannot pandemic its way through. Further, their enjoying that herd immunity doesn’t stop someone else from also enjoying it.

The point of the analysis being that in a market economy we tend to think that public goods will be underproduced. Because it’s really damn difficult to make money out of herd immunity. Or something that can be created once, copied thereafter and the quantity available never reduces.

Which is why we have time limited patents on inventions. The invention is a public good that cost a lot – maybe – to create that first time. But why would people spend a billion on making a new drug if the generic companies could just copy it on Day Two?

We can vary what the intervention is. Patents, the invention of property rights in order to create excludability, is one answer. As Ronald Coase pointed out about lighthouses, we could say that boats docking at domestic ports pay lights dues which go to the private lighthouses. We’ll just ignore the free rider problem of boats passing by because that solution is good enough. We could have regulation, we could have government spending. Adam Smith thought the benefits of being part of a generally literate and numerate society were worth government subsidy to primary schools. Now all we need to do is get the schools back to teaching readin’, ‘ritin’ ‘n’ numbering.

Or, to remain with vaccines, in order to gain that herd immunity we could use the NHS solution – government pays for all the kiddies to have them. Or the US, the kiddies can’t go to school until they’ve had their shots – the regulatory answer.

OK, fine. The crucial part of the argument though is that there is a general agreement that a purely free market system will underproduce some or many of such public goods. Intervention is thus justified. What the intervention is depends upon the specific circumstances – as with the inverse and Garrett Hardin on commons tragedies. The what depends upon the details, the whether on the identification of there being a public good here.

Which is, to repeat, that something be non-rivalrous and non-excludable.

So, to music. Is this something non-rivalrous and non-excludable?

“Music” is too wide a sector for there to be a correct answer. So let’s divide it into two. There’s the creation of new music – composition. Then there’s the performance of music that has already been composed.

OK, so we can exclude people from a performance of a piece of music. Note, as above, that our definition of public good does not depend upon whether we normally exclude, often do so, it’s whether we “cannot” do so. But clearly we can. So, music performance is not a public good. Yea even if much music is performed in public and for free, even if it’s good music for free and in public, a much stricter, erm, stricture, it ain’t a public good.

Ah, but composition. Once Amadeo had scribbled down those too many notes anyone could – and did – copy them. Anyone can now too. That’s a public good. Or as those two sisters created – or didn’t, as the controversy is – Happy Birthday. As millions of people will prove, this very day, it’s not possible to exclude people from singing it now that it’s been created. And their doing so doesn’t deplete the Happy Birthday Mines – so no complaints from George Monbiot about the damage Big Birthday is doing to Mother Gaia – that will allow people to do the same tomorrow.

Now that it exists Happy Birthday is a public good – non-excludable and non-rivalrous. At which point we’ve our public goods problem, people won’t invest in producing public goods “enough” because of the difficulty of profiting from having done so. To which the societal solution is copyright and yes, that’s absurdly overcooked. 70 years after death of the songwriter is nonsense. But that’s what the problem is. Composition is, once done, a public good so we do something about encouraging it. We could use other solutions. Creation of property rights isn’t the only way – we could have direct government subsidy of songwriters of course. That’s even been tried and gave us such famed pieces as “The Bones of the Ukrainian Helots are Crumbled Under the Weight of the Exceeded Tractor Production Targets” and other such light ditties.

Ms. Coppola has been arguing that performance of music is a public good. T’ain’t. Composition is. Which is why we already have a societal solution to that public goods problem of gaining more compositions – copyright. That performance is excludable means we don’t have to have a public goods solution because there isn’t a public goods problem here.

Note that this doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be subsidy to music. Or even, music degrees, which is sorta where we came in. We might think that warbling about the lark’s ascent is such an addition to societal happiness that we’ll cough up tax money to get ‘er done. Or we might not of course. But given that that is not a public good then the known and agreed public good justifications for such don’t apply. It becomes, instead,



For the music performance ain’t a public good.

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