We are increasingly becoming aware of a growing need for global public goods. It has been suggested that public goods are so important that the long history of civilization can be written as the history of provisions of various public goods. The argument therefore follows that our current world, being the most globally interdependent one, demands an ever more complex constellation of global publics good.
Global public goods is an intriguing concept; it is an extrapolation of public goods, an idea which has been with us for much longer. Public goods are the opposite of private goods. Once available, public goods are available to all, and not just to those who produced it or paid for it. In a further counterintuitive twist, the consumption of a public good does not decrease what is left for anyone else to consume. In other words, when a loaf of bread is available for sale and I buy that loaf of bread, no one else can have that loaf. But if I live in a country with adequate national defense, the fact that I enjoy security does not diminish the security that can be enjoyed by others in the same country, whether they are taxpayers or not. After it was proposed in 1954, the notion of a public good took hold rapidly and spun an extraordinary literature and policy consciousness. As such, global public goods emerged as a pedagogically seamless and tactically fertile iteration on an already well appreciated phenomenon.
Public goods emerged out of economics, and one way that the economists thought of public goods were as market failure. Markets, which are enviably efficient in allocating resources for private goods, did not work for public goods.
Yet, when we move from the traditional conception of public goods to global public goods, we also encounter challenges that defy simple extrapolation. Public goods emerged out of economics, and one way that the economists thought of public goods were as market failure. Markets, which are enviably efficient in allocating resources for private goods, did not work for public goods. Because public goods were things that everyone could and did enjoy, no single person had enough incentive to pay for optimal supply. It was concluded that public goods would ideally be provided by the state, and paid for through taxes; the optimal level of supply would be decided through societal deliberation and the political process. Along the way, public goods became a key justification for the existence of a state. The paradigm example is national defense. As it would be nonsensical to expect individual families or cities to organize or procure defense for themselves, this needed to be done on a national scale. Once provided, everyone benefitted from the security that national defense made possible, and it was logical that that national defense be paid through taxes. Globally, however, we do not have a one-world government, so how shall we organize the provision of global public goods?
Brookings Senior Fellow and former U.S. State Department Special Envoy on Climate Todd Stern spoke at the US Climate Action Center, at the COP 24 UN climate negotiations, on the future of the Paris Agreement in Katowice, Poland on December 10, 2018.