For a several months now, as I've worked on one project or another or interacting with colleagues and friends, I keep coming back to the same two broad concepts that Americans should be discussing, but seem to have lost sight off: what exactly are or should be public goods and what sort of social contract should we have to make sure that they are properly delivered. While this is going to be a light on hyper links post, as it is essentially a thought piece, given the type of discussions that we usually have here at SST, and given what we all witnessed over the past two weeks regarding continuing resolutions and budgets, and what we'll unfortunately watch going forward as issues like the debt ceiling and the 2012 budget come up, as well as the next election cycle, the time seems right to try to write this up and post it.
Let me start by defining my terms. I'm using public good to refer to anything that is or should be non-excludable and/or non-rivalrous or both. Simply if anyone could or should partake of it and if partaking of it can not reduce the amount of it to be consumed by anyone, then something is or should be a public good. In simpler parlance we generally equate things like roadways, a variety of essential services such as sewer and water and electric, education, defense, law enforcement, emergency services (fire and EMS), and even healthcare as public goods. Another good way to define a public good, which is often easier to use because it doesn't use words like "non-rivalrous", is an item or service that individuals, or even groups, can not provide for themselves, that by their nature are accessible to everyone in a society, and which have to account for the lowest common denominator (ie it makes no difference what one's class, ethnicity, religion, gender, etc is).
By social contract I'm referring to the agreements that we make as a society on issues of political, social, economic, and religious governance. Usually in liberal democracies, which is what the US is supposed to be (of the republic type), this requires giving up some freedom or liberty in exchange for certain public goods; specifically goods and services that individuals or even groups of individuals can not produce or provide for themselves. So the two concepts - public goods and social contract are linked and intertwined.
Moreover, slavish devotion to a mid to late 19th century social contract may not well suit a 21st Century America. I've seen many commenters at SST assert that the Constitution died or ceased to exist or was destroyed by President Lincoln or by President (Franklin Delano) Roosevelt or by President Johnson. Many believe it was destroyed by President Nixon or President (George W.) Bush. Take the politics away and the real question should be: what kind of social contract makes the most sense for us, as Americans, today? While I'm not calling for a new Constitutional Convention or a series of new amendments, there is a great deal of wisdom in President Jefferson's belief that social contracts should not last for more than 20 years or so. He was concerned that ideas of past generations (the dead) would constrict and constrain and not well serve the current one. Having a discussion, however, that first delineates and defines what the public goods are that we as Americans expect would lead to a discussion of what kind of social contract we need to ensure that we have the proper and appropriate social, economic, and political forms of governance in place to deliver them would do us a lot of good. Instead of railing about the size of the debt or tax burdens (that are at historic lows and comparatively also very low) or how to pay for things, we need to first decide what should be paid for. If medicare is such a great thing that senior citizens want to keep the government's hands off of it, even though it is a government program, then should only those over 65 have access to it? If we want not just the largest, best trained, best equipped military in the world and we want to use it when we feel we need to, should we actually pay for its use through greater taxes (ie we all share the cost) and through everyone's service or do we keep paying for our deployments through supplemental off budget spending and by having less than 3% of the population bear the risks for the rest of us? If, as many insisted both during the 2008 presidential campaign and last year during the discussion of letting President Bush's (43) tax cuts expire for those making more than $250,000 per year, a $250,000 annual income is not wealthy or rich, then does it make any sense to claim that teachers, law enforcement, and fire fighters who are lucky to make a fifth of that amount are somehow well off and should accept cuts in salary and/or benefits because the economy is struggling yet raising the marginal top rate by 3% is some form of socialist class warfare?
These are the topics we need to be discussing, and there are several more that I didn't list, before we do anything else. Then we can discuss how best to deliver them, which gets at the issue of the social contract in terms of how we're going to order our 21st Century society, which will in turn drive the question of how to pay for things. Unfortunately we don't seem to have matured into a society that can have these discussions. Sadly we seem to be doomed to ideologically driven screaming matches fueled by a news media that purposefully makes us less well informed and less well educated. As Dr. Franklin is reported to have said as he left Constitution Hall in Philadelphia: "a Republic if you can keep it". It is not clear, based on what passes for our public discourse, that we can keep it or even if we have.
*Adam L. Silverman is the Culture and Foreign Language Advisor at the US Army War College. The views expressed herein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Army War College, the US Army, or the US Government.