Public Goods on a global scale

Published on 15 April 2003 - Odile Tobner

... An old and new concept

In order that one day all human beings have the possibility to be “ equal in dignity and rights ” one idea, amongst many others at the beginning of this millennium, is that “ public goods ” are necessary on a global scale. But what does that mean ?

Historically, whatever the words used and whatever the cultural context, each society, each civilisation has developed public goods and services. However, these days, such goods are threatened everywhere by greed for financial interests. At the same time, increasing interaction of human societies leads to both new evils and needs.

Uncontrolled globalisation of both production and financial activities is also accompanied by an unprecedented development of “ tax haven ” systems which open up a boulevard for economic crime, facilitate the corruption of politicians and civil servants and undermine the economic basis for financing public goods.

The European social model, which underlies one of the highest levels of development on the planet, remains an example, and the threats which dog it are keenly felt. Other countries, in particular in the Third World, scarcely have the means to defend their achievements and solidarity practices against international financial institution injunctions.

It is in this difficult context that the idea of global public goods as a necessity made its irruption into debates on the world’s future. It is not a question of substituting general interest services which are threatened locally, but a question of new needs, born from the realisation of a need for solidarity and the refusal of inequalities in the increasing planetary movement of society interaction.

Some consider this idea a necessary response to the evils of our time. Elsewhere, some try to use the idea in order to accelerate global merchandising in the name of questionable economic laws. Besides these fundamental differences, there is considerable debate surrounding intimately linked questions : what exactly is the content of a global public good, is there an optimal level, at what territorial scale should it be assured, and by who, and how do we get there... ?

... What the international institutions say about it

Economists, as is their role, work to concoct theoretical definitions of global public goods. However, they are generally marked with the seal of dominant liberalism. Therefore, we end up with two families of formulations that we have described below to their extreme sense.

In the first formulation, the public good is something which the market lacks in order to work well, and that the market cannot provide. Mercantile criteria. The need is evaluated in the absence of growth or profit. It must be taken on board by a public authority. The public good is the social crutch of the market.

In the second formulation, the public good is something which society lacks in order to work well and that the market cannot provide. Human criteria. The need is defined by the yardstick of universal human rights. It must be taken on board by a public authority. The public good is the crutch of the trade society.

The second approach, which inspired the interesting works of the UNPD (United Nations Development Programme), is obviously more promising than the first which favours the international financial institutions. However, if the definition of need differs so radically from one to the other, that of the method is on the contrary very similar and favours the shift from one to the other. The image of the crutch creates something fundamentally negative : considered necessary during vital rehabilitation, we cannot wait to get rid of it. And when? When the market takes or takes back on board this service. Here, the good is trapped by business lax whose hegemony corresponds to the world merchandising that we are fighting against.

... What we do

It is not enough to denounce the insufficiency of economist definitions of pubic goods. Indeed it is the very fact of defining the good in relation to the economy that is at fault and so easily produces the contrary. The public good is a social choice.

There is public law, of which the general architecture constitutes the current and evolving framework of the problem, and whose logic must be imposed on that of private law. There are public goods, simultaneously defined by current human and economic rights and by the foreseeable, or yet to be resolved, needs and aspirations. Finally, there are public services, which guarantee their fulfilment.

In short, public goods are the things to which people and populations have a right, and to which public services should give them the most equitable and free access as possible.

The broad definition of public service that we have adopted should not be confused with either that of public sector, as happens all too often, or with the non merchandise character of service. Private companies can have a public service obligation. Some public service providers can be free and others not. Above all, these different forms should be compatible with the fundamental definition of the service in question. A definition which is well sustained by law and which leads to a public obligation to provide this good equally to those who lack it.

Knowing who provides the service, in the name of which principles and for who’s benefit, is the definition of the method. However, it is also the second determination of good since it can reverse everything and turn the public good into a public evil. How can we say that a good turns evil ? From principles accepted as superior (and each society has its own) and whose negation or transgression destroy social cohesion. This does not only cancel the goods, but creates evils which are worse than their absence.

In socio-economic terms, the framework of law is that of societal values, the framework of “ things ” that of customary values, the framework of services that of exchange values, to the extent where these are determined by human means wholly put into practice. It can be noticed that this pattern can help define any merchandise. Which makes the pattern of public goods lie in the very terms of the definition of the goods in question.

Therefore, after having carefully distinguished the three frameworks for the analysis, we believe that they shelter for each type of “ good ” an inseparable system. In this system, the conjunction of an ensemble of “ rights ” in the framework of principles and a structure of “ service ” in the operational plan determines whether or not we can produce public “ goods or evils ” in the field of social and ecological results. A triangle ‘right-good-service’, which can be “ virtuous ” if the rights are in reality fair and respected, or vicious otherwise. Moreover, the service dynamic can produce other goods, which can, from the need for equality, create other rights, or on the contrary - other evil destroyers of rights.

To be more precise, let’s say that if we choose the right of the most powerful in the first framework, and an operational structure dominated by the most powerful in the second, in the resulting framework we will inevitably find an increase in inequalities on a global scale. This is exactly the case for the World Trade Organisation (WTO) whatever the good intentions that it is claims to marginally introduce.

We can now develop a “ canonical pattern ” of public goods and one of its possible opposites in terms of global public evil.

We could develop multiple examples. For instance, show how all credits and development aid have above all created a monstrous debt, obstructing all development and primarily responsible for pillaging natural and human resources from poor countries.

By extension, the same right can justify several types of good, and the same good can apply to several types of rights and different services etc. Each good is defined in a triangle. R<=>G<=>S<=>R whose summits can be connected by the other two to a multitude of other triangles. This is how we are able to identify the coalitions of social powers which are likely to impose the production of a good, in a place where the action of the only direct beneficiaries would have been guaranteed to fail. .

... On a global scale

Ideas of patrimony and common goods have already gained some ground, even if their full achievement remains far from satisfactory. What more and what new thing can global public goods bring ? That of bringing the level from world appropriation to equitable distribution between individuals and between populations, from production and sustainable conservation to everyday use. All this should be studied beyond these generalities, for each of the goods in question.

On what basis ? Resulting from the reaction to the major dramas of the XX century, grew - as a totally new fact in the history of humanity - the emerging structure of universal human rights. Of course, the universality is debatable in regards to cultural diversity throughout the world. If it would help progression, we are open to the debate. If it would lead to a global rejection, we would just say that the current choice is between human rights and barbarism. Also emerging, though still embryonic, is the global ecological right, which is about humanity’s responsibility towards world ecology and therefore towards future generations.

It is upon theses bases that we put forward a broad definition of global public goods, and the evils which lead to their insufficiency or absence. Our approach is resolutely situated in the emerging culture of human rights and global economic realities as opposed to the anti-culture of unbridled profit, crime and war, whose threat is accentuated by the rapid rise in financial crime.

It is not enough to point out from which universal rights global public goods are legitimate and possible and which types of services are necessary to make them effective. And it is not the work of experts, however useful it may be, that will provide the solutions. The conceptual battle for a driving and stimulating acceptance of global public goods is above all down to grassroots movements world-wide and it is at this level that we would like to aim, in priority, the debate.

Therefore, for each type of good, concrete action leads to favour coalitions of social powers which would be able to claim them, to obtain the necessary scale changes and to identify the public authorities to activate, change or create to ensure their fulfilment. This is where the motor of progress can be found. It is also where the distinction between rights, goods and services will be particularly pertinent since a definition of public goods in relation to global public rights could be linked to the inevitable (and desirable) diversity of local and regional rights and services.

Translated by Lucy Berthet

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