Historically, every society and civilisation has developed public goods and services, whatever the words used and whatever the cultural context. However, these days, such goods are threatened everywhere by greed for financial interests. At the same time, the increasing interaction of human societies leads to both new evils and needs. It is within this difficult context that the idea of “global public goods” as a necessity has entered into public debates on the world’s future. It is not question of substituting public goods and services which are threatened locally, but a matter of recognising that there are new needs. This recognition is born from the developing awareness of a need for solidarity and from the refusal of the aggravation of inequalities in the global movement of increasing society interaction.
Although, we hear about them more and more, the terms “goods and common inheritance” either differently defined as “public”, “of primary need”, “essential” or “fundamental”, “public services”, and other terms such as “of general interest”, “people’s right of having this and doing that”, make up a confusing bunch of concepts to which the UNDP (United Nations Development Program - Programme des Nations Unies pour le Développement) has contributed to the incoherence. Therefore, how can we make progress in this mess ?
To sort out such confusion, let’s start by distinguishing “common” from “public”, and see how we could define public goods on a political, economic, and institutional level. This is necessary in order to clearly define the social requirements to which they must respond, as well as the different political means for action.
Let’s start from a simple trilogy: “common goods” is what belongs to anyone (or no one) now and in the future. “Public goods” is what everyone should have a right to, here and now. “Public service” is the way in which these common and public goods have to be managed, produced and distributed. This is true at all levels of society, from the village to global scale.
Goods to serve the public
It is a long, very long story…. which begins at the collective hearth, the communal well, the public fountain, in common meeting or work places. Then it spreads to the transport systems and trading techniques between close communities and public markets. By developing and organising themselves on increasingly broader geographical bases, these supportive community realities, give rise to new functions. The conveyance of water or energy, transportation, diffusion of knowledge, requires comprehensive management and a principle of distribution within the social area concerned. Let’s add to this the need for regulation and recognised authority for its implementation. Of course, everything becomes more complicated, yet thankfully it is still possible to find fountains and hearths, and village gathering places...
Shared management calls upon the current and upcoming general interest of the communities concerned; free and equitable access calls upon the strong tradition of “public service”. This tradition is so strong that it is all too often forgotten that it relates to the public good, which has to be socially defined by other authorities than by the companies (either private or public) providing the service.
This requires democratic control by public services of the three primary social groups concerned – workers, consumers and the entire related social body. The second group is too often neglected, and the third is mostly always forgotten. When we think about the latter, we almost always rely it blindly to the State. What foolishness! At the end of the day, different practices which deprive “public services” of their real sense, encourage their privatisation, and it becomes more and more difficult to defend them.
The fourth component is world-wide. What can we do to ensure that the social definition of public and common goods and their related services avoids national selfishness? And in order that it ceases to lead to the pillage of dominated nation’s riches, who only get in exchange the destructive effects. The concept of global public goods becomes an imperative requirement. This is one of the appeals, and not the slightest, which will put the sense back into the great idea of public service in its entirety.
Market deficiency or social choices?
Is there a theoretical economic definition of public goods? Yes, and unfortunately a widely used one. Many economists still refer to it, in particular those from the UNDP. This can only harm their worthy efforts to promote global public goods. In fact, this formulation releases several conceptions in favour of the advocates of a neo-liberalist economy. Which those at the World Bank were quick to realise…
Public goods are non-exclusive and non-competitive: everyone can use them, and this use does not deprive others of the goods. This implies that the market can not be a producer. Subsequently a public intervention is required. Their implementation is blocked by three traditional problems of economic theory: the free rider’s practices , the prisoner’s dilemma and the sheep like behaviour. Another problem is the fact that only a few goods respond exactly to the definition. The others are "impure" public goods.
This summarises without caricaturising this strange conception. There is no need to go any further, since the problem is elsewhere: economic theory is not the relevant basis to determine what should be defined as public goods. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine a mass of people mobilising themselves for such a cause. In fact, it is part of the antimondialists’ great lack of enthusiasm towards this idea of world public goods.
An alternative definition
To fill the gap left by this radical refutation, the association BPEM (Biens publics à l’échelle mondiale - Public goods on a global scale) suggests the following definition which has nothing to do with economic theory: “Global Public Goods are things that we admit both people and populations have a right to, that are produced and distributed freely and equitably, as according to the definition of public service itself, and done so whatever the status of the company providing the service. Universal human and ecological rights provide these rules which are guaranteed by international institutions, and which are permanently demanded by democracy and created by social movements”.
On this basis, what can be claimed as global public goods, and which ones are already in the process of being recognised? A list, or better still a classification, remains to be drawn up. (Many have been studied in this issue…) They are actually past, present and upcoming social choices. If there are no “natural” public goods, then they are of all natures. As citizens of the world, we have a duty to accustom ourselves to thinking on a global scale, or rather on all scales.
The idea of common goods for humanity requires that we do not sacrifice the future in order to feed the present (especially if profit is the source of hunger). The idea of global public goods judiciously adds that it is not through sacrificing the present that the future we will be preserved either, except if those necessary sacrifices are thoroughly accepted and equally distributed, since the freedom of agreement also depends on the equity of distribution. In equity, it is also said that “You pay for your mistakes”... In other words, if we take for an example the case of climate change, the power of the nations, who are mainly responsible for the damage, will be required as a priority, for its restoration.
It is at this double cost that the wide concept of sustainable development could gain all its significance. Putting the public goods at the centre of any development project would be the most reliable guarantee for the protection of humanity’s common goods. However, the preservation of goods and local public services inherited from the history of different populations and the efforts in order to create new ones on a global scale is confronted with the blind dynamic of financial capitalism, supported by the ad hoc institutions created by the dominant States. It is a vital battle for the citizens of the world, who will have to call upon all existing – or yet to be created - laws and institutional means.
Rights and institutions
The law from which we could define and establish the requirements of common and global goods is the developing figure of the universal rights. The law from which we could define and establish the requirements of common and global goods is the developing figure of the universal rights, from the declaration of 1948 to the development of conventions, without neglecting of course the two general pacts concerning civil and political laws on one hand, social economic and cultural on the other. The latter is still quite imperfect and principally little applied. The ecological right remains to be developed, in order to leave something else to the next generation than a field of ruins.
This developing global law, as well as the institutions which are fundamentally ruled by it, are essential in order to counteract the power of institutions created by dominant states and financial powers. Of course such laws and institutions must be criticised, in order to be reformed, but, we should not deny ourselves the use of existing acquirements. We can’t rebuild everything. A forthcoming essential step could be the recognition of a basis for global public goods which origin would be the peoples’ right to things that are essential, fundamental, or simply required.
Yet, although the definition of common and public goods has to be general, the specific configurations presenting them will have to be based on existing public services. The latter can also be created locally, and at all levels. This will, in return strengthen the threatened public services.
In contrast with some notions of inheritance and common goods of humanity, the notions of public goods remain to be specified, and imposed. Who will define what is desirable, necessary, and essential? The population and individuals… That issue is cruelly missing in world-wide institutions, and called democracy. Its development is the major movement of "people in progress"... Yet, the stakes have to be clarified, starting with the vocabulary. That was our concern throughout this article: suggesting with the carefulness of not compelling.
François LILLE, Economist, President of "Biens publics à l’échelle mondiale"
Translated by Nga NGUYEN