Externalities, Intanglibles, and Democracy

Samizdata.net – Who should pay for the smell of lasagne?

Interesting discussion of externalities, the commons, and payment systems. I made a comment and it’s worth seeing….

realised there was a positive externality created by cooking the meal, so I suggested to the office that they should pay me for the pleasure they were receiving.

I had no takers. Had I pushed them, they might have argued that, while the smell was enjoyable, they had not consented to it and therefore had no obligation to pay for it. They might also have pointed out that although the smell was nice, I would be getting the real benefit (the eating part).

In this example, it can be seen that charging people to receive a positive externality is unfair and absurd. Yet this is exactly the argument many people use in favour of taxpayer-funded university courses. This argument, out of all the arguments for scrapping tuition fees, is the worst.

I wrote:

Yeah, but isn’t it kind of low and barbaric to reduce everything to “payment” in this way? We seem to have forgotten all of the lessons that our grandparents learned about how the economic system is really unstable and irreconcilable with real life. People then knew that sometimes you just need to make sure some things, like a safety net or a way to improve your population in general, is simply provided.

Not everything, not even all payment, is purely economic in the sense meant in the example. For example, if some guy finds himself a girlfriend who is really good in bed, it can make him a fairly happier man (other relationship issues being equal) than he was with a woman who was so-so in the bedroom.

It does not follow that the man, or his company or friends or family, ought to pay money for the woman’s sexual activities with the man. This does not mean that there isn’t a degree of exchange going on… if the man cannot provide the woman with satisfaction, sexual or otherwise, she will probably eventually move on to a more suitable partner.

Similarly, not all externalities are limited to purely economic considerations. Anyone with evena modicum of interest in democracy would have to admit that a properly educated society – a society in which critical thinking and analytical skills are well-developed, an awareness of history is cultivated, and an ability to reason and debate is built up – is necessary. Otherwise, the people running the society (the people themselves) are not really equipped for their (supposedly) most sacred and important job.

Whether or not secondary, or post-secondary, education does this is another question. I think most people would agree that a decent post-secondary education would be an aid, and if it’s difficult to get that, then what’s needed is educational system reform, not funding cuts.

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