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Introduction:  Why Do We have Government?
Russell D. Renka
PS103 - January 25, 200

Politics and Power
Public Goods and Governments

    This is Week 1 of our PS103 course.  Instead of Forum, I'll use web pages like this for most extended notes.  This way is easier since I can save and return any time, and larger applications such as photographs and graphics are easily incorporated here.  (Note:  One liability of Forum is that a long message can be entirely lost without recovery.  That's not the case on a normal web page like this one.  So if you write anything lengthy that you'd dread losing, save it outside the Forum while you work on it.)

    You have been born and raised under the protective umbrella of several American governments, so it's simple to assume that their existence is a natural thing.  But it's not.  They come about by human design rather than mysterious or unknown beginnings.  Here we consider why we even have government at all.  To explain government, first we have to understand the term politics.  This term is defined in the text as "the process through which society makes its governing decisions."  Sure, sure; but that's not enough (Chapter 1, p. 17; or online Chapter 1 Glossary).  They left that job to me.

Politics and Power                             Top; Next Down

    Politics is one of those words that everyone uses and few completely understand.  Merriam-Webster offers this: "Function: noun plural but singular or plural in construction; Etymology: Greek politika, from neuter plural of politikos political
1  a : the art or science of government
   b : the art or science concerned with guiding or influencing governmental policy
    c : the art or science concerned with winning and holding control over a government
2 : political actions, practices, or policies
3  a : political affairs or business; especially : competition between competing interest groups or individuals for power and leadership (as in a government)
: political life especially as a principal activity or profession
: political activities characterized by artful and often dishonest practices
4 : the political opinions or sympathies of a person
5  a : the total complex of relations between people living in society
: relations or conduct in a particular area of experience especially as seen or dealt with from a political point of view <office politics> <ethnic politics>."(definition of politics - Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary)

So yes, politics is about government.  Answers.com gives six usages, including this first item: "the art or science of government or governing, especially the governing of a political entity, such as a nation, and the administration and control of its internal and external affairs." (Politics definition - Answers.com).  That one is pretty clear, as we're already reasonably familiar with governments and governance.  Also present is this final one:  "The often internally conflicting interrelationships among people in a society."  So it's social in some way that may not fully involve government.  That's sufficiently vague to require treatment.

    I characterize politics via two important elements:  1) the exercise of power, and 2) making collective rather than individual decisions.  Power between two entities A and B means this:  if A gets B to do something B would otherwise not do, then A exercises power over B.

    A variant of power is deterrence:  A gets B not to do something B would otherwise do.  Suppose Bart were able to somehow convince Nelson that it wasn't worth Nelson's trouble to bully Bart out of his daily lunch money.  That isn't easy; but if Bart could somehow do that, he's practicing deterrence.  Humans routinely try this, and so do other animal species.  Some may remember Gary Larson's The Far Side cartoon picturing two lions watching antelopes parade by.  One has "Turbo" written brightly on his flanks and is looking over at the catty pair.  One lion to the other:  "Don't even bother!"  If that passed you by, then take note of local Neighborhood Watch signs.  They are not to stop criminals from being what they are; they're to warn them that this is a guarded target they had best avoid.

    So I argue that politics is "sewn into the nature" of human beings.  Consider this:  if you truly want something badly that requires the actions of another person, you as person A will bother person B.  It won't do to hope that somehow B will experience an epiphany and do your bidding if you do not act.  Parents of children may recognize a certain four-part hierarchy of exercises of power.  These are 1) persuasion, 2) use of authority, 3) inducements or bribery, and 4) use of direct coercion or force.  These form an ascending sequence of uses by A.

    Assume you're A, and you have a 5-year old child B.  If you want her to do something, you may first try a brilliantly crafted argument to convince her that it's best for her (that B should do what she otherwise will not do).  So when your five-year old steps on a tack in her room, you wait till the tears are barely dry before saying "If you had picked up the tacks from the floor, you would not step on one and hurt yourself!"  Brilliant argument, and it should persuade any age fiver whose mother tongue is English.

    But if a day or two passes and that does not work, then you might try an appeal to authority:  "I speak as your mother.  Mothers all know that kids should always pick up tacks from the floor."  Or borrow from ancestors:  "Your grandmother says you should pick up the tacks as soon as you're finished with them."  Here it's not a brilliant persuasive case, but an appeal to someone the child presumably holds in esteem.  (And by the way, many parents will resort immediately to this rather than trying persuasion first.  It's a lot easier and cheaper than fashioning a cogent persuasive oration!  Invoking authority is a sophisticated version of "Just do what I say!")

    But alas!  Another day passes without a picked-up floor.  So then it may (often) come down to bartering over a fee for this child's service.  You might try this with cookies near at hand in a clear container:  "I see that your room still needs to be picked up."  If she is looking at the cookies while you say this, you can guess what's next.  "I ... want five cookies!"  And you say:  "Pick your tacks up and we'll discuss it."  "No, I want the cookies first!"  "OK, one cookie now, and if you pick up the tacks, another one when you're done."  The variations here are endless, but all to the same end.  A gets B to do what B would otherwise not do.

    But that's not the end of this story.  Sometimes inducement or bribery also fails.  Then what?  Suppose 1) it's a far more important issue than tacks in her room, and 2) you're dead serious about getting this job done.  Assume that persuasion, authority, and bribery all failed to budge your child.  If it's picking up a room, I daresay most parents would throw up hands and do the pickup themselves.  But not if it's wearing a seatbelt during rush hour in a highway-speed car!  Unless your name is Britney and you lack a basic child-safety education, surely you'd get dead serious about a child who won't wear a seatbelt.  Would you resort to directly making the child wear the belt if all else fails?  I darned sure would!  Bet you agree if you're a parent (and Britney, you don't vote on this).

    So politics is about getting your way through use of power, and that can be done in several ways.  The combinations of persuasion, authority, bribery, and force are endless; but all are to get B to do A's bidding.

Public Goods and Governments                             Top; Next Down

    In America we celebrate the free enterprise system so thoroughly that some among us doubt the need for any but minimal governance.  We call these folks libertarians, and they insist that personal freedom comes only in this way.  They have a point.  Consider the standard Max Weber definition of government as that institution that has a "monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force" (Max Weber on the "modern state" - Extracts from Max Weber; Weber 1918; also Monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force - Wikipedia; and note that our text Glossary doesn't define "government" or "state").  OK, then why allow such an institution as the nation-state (our nation being one of those, with a government) to exist at all?  I don't personally like being forced to do things, and probably you don't either.

    You might say "wait a minute, this government is a democracy, with popular elections for major positions of power, competition for office, basic rights established in the Constitution, rule of law rather than of men, and so forth."  Sure, sure; but Weber's definition extends to these via the term "legitimate" use of force.  If you are ruled rather than governed, then legitimacy is irrelevant.  Stipulation of rights via the Bill of Rights and elsewhere are designed to prevent arbitrary use of force by rulers.  Fairly conducted elections in democracy confer that legitimacy--a right to use the powers of the elected offices.  That includes use of force via police, military, binding judgments of courts of law backed by sheriffs or other law enforcement, and compulsory taxation.  Democratic governments of modern states do have this monopoly--and they use it them regularly.

    So what justifies a government doing so?  We get a lot of that in Ch. 2, but I have a separate view to put on it.  See Glossary p. G-2 for the term collective goods, aka "public goods."  These are goods enjoyed simultaneously by a group, as opposed to a private good that must be divided up to be shared.  OK, public goods are indivisible for the group, like the air in the theater as opposed to your own popcorn.  Public goods like that are also nonexclusive:  you cannot keep anyone in that theater from breathing the air (barring a criminal assault).  In the economists' discussions of consumption, we say public goods are jointly consumed.  This all means that private payments for goods in private markets can break down, for how do you get everyone to pay for the public goods?  With divisible popcorn, that's easy:  no pay, no pop.  But the air is "free" in our common parlance, even though heated or warmed air is actually expensive to produce.  Look now to Glossary p. G-4 on "the free-rider problem."  Free riders are those who consume a public good without contributing toward its production.  This is quite a commonplace behavior.  Since interest groups exist to pursue public and governmental policy, we say their membership produces collective goods rather than private goods.  Thus the Glossary adds that "nonmembers receive the benefits without having to pay any of the group's costs."  A lot of groups create a public benefit that helps members and nonmembers alike.

    Hmmm.  What do we do about free riders who breathe the air for free?  Nothing.  But there are other public goods that are very expensive and are crucial to our advanced quality of life.  You can traverse this large state via freeways (I55, I-270, and I70--God help you for that one).  In Cape Girardeau, you sit down in Port Cape or Buckner's behind a nice half-mile-long floodwall.  You walk and ride on city streets.  You can toss frisbees in spacious County Park or hold picnics there.  You cross to Illinois on a $100 million dollar Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge (with 80% of that bill paid by the fed's; see MoDOT's Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge and RoseCity's Bill E. Emerson Memorial Bridge).  You have publicly provided water that's been through our city filtration system next door to the Big Muddy.  You can see a $60 million dollar creek culvert next to Highway 61 to prevent another midtown flood like the 1986 May deluge of that highway's business district.  You have fire and police and legal protections.  You have paved county roads to remote locales, which get U.S. mail six days of every week.  You get protection from al Q'aeda by the efforts of our Department of Homeland Security (you may not see that one, but it's presumably there).  That's a small section of an impressive list that I use against libertarians who wish government would defend our shores, deliver some mail, and otherwise do little to nothing.

    Why not let our vaunted private enterprise take care of all these things?  Actually, we often do, by contracting out jobs.  But it's done under governmental aegis that stipulates service for everyone.  In the voluntary private sector, that's not how the game goes.  Instead, it's no pay, no play (private goods being excludable).  If you want to play golf at a country club, pay the club membership dues or else be excluded.  But governments cannot legitimately do that because they're chiefly financed via taxation, whereby government compels all of us to pay for its upkeep and for whatever it produces.  When we're obliged to pay in, we're entitled to partake of the product.  That's how Social Security and Medicare work for older folks who spent years in our work force (their payroll "contributions" actually being taxes).

        In short, governments short-circuit the free rider problem by making everybody pay for things government produces.  And it doesn't matter that government may farm out the actual construction to private firms.  The goods are still "public" once they are in operation.  Governments don't rely on volunteer payments for public goods.  Such volunteers will always confront the free rider who declines to contribute.  Now in small groups, this is often a small-scale or solvable problem that is successfully handled by volunteer efforts.  A small church will customarily pay for its public goods with pass-the-plate contributions.  But this volunteerism is reinforced.  If you let that plate pass you by without putting green paper in it, others will see, and soon everybody will know!  Social pressure ensues:  "You better get right with God before it's too late!"  Enough will contribute that free ridership is effectively curbed.

    Voluntary farm-country associations to build collective earthen levees are everywhere south of Cape in the Bootheel flood zones.  Small-scale public goods get contributions from all or almost all their beneficiaries with minimal use of government force.  Libertarians like to cite this, and they have a point.

    But large-scale public goods are a different story.  What if we experimented with a voluntary system of payments to finance Homeland Security protection against terrorists?  God knows, we agree now on the need for that.  But do each of you trust your classmates to also contribute?  Personally, I doubt you do, because you don't all see or know each other and cannot watch who drops money in the plate.  I don't mean to be cynical; I am not certain that others are up to no good.  But I'm skeptical; like any good Missourian, you have to show me.  If we all come to know each other and are closely linked like farm neighbors or church pew regulars, then probably almost everyone will choose to contribute.  But what if there are 2300 or 23,000 of us and we never go face-to-face?  Then I doubt that we'll avoid free riding.

    In fact, that problem afflicts large church congregations in a way that small ones avoid.  Here's an online account of that:  Robert J. Stonebraker's The Joy of Economics - Sacrifice and Stigma.  The Lutheran Assistant Pastor's job is to elicit voluntary contributions from every parishioner through door-to-door visits.  It's not all successful, and it's hard toil to get folks to do what ought to come naturally.  That's not just because some folks are just ornery or cheapskates; it's because free riders rationally assume that other people will somehow pick up their slack.  And it's because some parishioners doubt that other parishioners will pony up their fair shares--so I don't want to contribute to a failed enterprise and be made a fool.

    Economists and political scientists have felled forests writing about the intricacies of this elemental free rider problem.  Governments reliably solve this problem, by making the recalcitrants pay (not 100 percent of the time, but reasonably close).  Our conclusion is inevitable:  governments exist to provide large-scale public goods.  That includes the attributes of democracy itself:  the rule of law, the preservation of basic rights, the provision of power with limits to persons who will govern us rather than rule us.  Think about it a minute.  Do you know another way to get this job done?  I do not.  We're not going to go out of the government business anytime soon.


Stonebraker, Robert J.  No date.  The Joy of Economics - Sacrifice and Stigma.  URL:  faculty.winthrop.edu/stonebrakerr/book/stigma.htm. Accessed 15 May 2007.

Weber, Max.  1918.  Politics as a Vocation.  English translation Weber - Politics as a Vocation at URL:  tiunet.tiu.edu/acadinfo/cas/socsci/psych/SOC410/Readings/Weber/Works/politics.htm.  Accessed 16 January 2008.


Copyrightę2008, Russell D. Renka