The economist’s term “public good,” about which I’ve been quite interested over the last few years is defined by negitives. Actually two double negatives!

  • non-excludable, and
  • non-rival

That kind of definition is the sign of science, or something. It certainly is the sign of struggling with an idea that’s outside of the normal world view – at least that of the economist.

If you wish to nurture a thing it’s best if you describe it with positive attributes.
I’ve been trying to find some for the public good. This is what I’ve come up with.

  • nonexcludible -> abundant
  • nonrival -> collegial

Things that are collegial and abundant – these are the public goods.

Those of us who strive to create an maintain public goods in various domains know that conflict and scarcity are the symptoms of a breakdown. People in these professions – libarians, teachers, CTOs, traffic engineers, mailing list moderators, standardization geeks, open source leaders – watch the the public good they steward. Smiling, watching, looking for congestion and whispering hush. Striving to untangle knots before they tighten up creating scarcity and arguments.

When I was a kid I read a book about knots. Where I learned this about tangles: “Never pull!”

See also: This nice essay, autobiographical, by the late Rich Gold – Plentitude.

One reason I’ve been muzing about this was a nice essay I read recently, a trip report. The author had sat in a room with some folks from the Linux community and some folks from the ISO. Now both these communities strive to create public-goods. So both groups held the others in some respect. But the author’s observation was that the ISO crowd was very diplomatic while the Linux crowd was very to the point. The ISO folks were deferential; not being the kind to pull. While the Linux guys were pushing, hard. He saw it as a strange and sadly incompatible mix.

Another example. I was talking to somebody who labors to create an abundance about his troubles with barriers to entry. At one point he voiced his frustration: “We work so hard to give this stuff away and all they do is complain. Never grateful.”

Grateful – yeah; that’s what the steward of public goods hope for.

Homework: Go find a the steward of one of the public goods who’s abundance you draw upon – say thank you.

6 thoughts on “Abundance

  1. Kragen Sitaker

    I don’t think the everyday meanings of “abundant” and “collegial” have much to do with the econojargon meanings of “non-excludable” and “non-rival.” “Abundant” in everyday language means something like “non-rival”, but it’s more specific — it means that the reason a good is non-rival is that there’s a lot of it. You could probably get people to extend it, metaphorically, to all non-rival goods; people might be confused when you say that some rare book is “abundant” because you can make unlimited copies of it easily, but they’ll get used to it. (I notice that you were so confused that you attached “abundant” to “non-excludable”.)

    I’m not sure what ordinary English word to use for “non-excludable.” The jargon meaning is something like the English words “promiscuous” or “public,” but one of those is too specific (and negative) and the other is too generic.

    What’s ISTO?

  2. Ben Hyde

    Kragen – Thanks for the comments.

    First off, I meant to write ISO; not ISTO. ISO is the International Standards Organization. They are the parent organization of the worldwide hierarchy of standards making organizations.

    I’m less interested in finding words that are equivalent to the words the economists have selected. I’m seeking words that speak to what makes a public good succeed.

    I did intend for ‘abundant’ to substitute for ‘non-excludible’. Something is excludible when you can wall it in. You wall it in because either to create scarcity or because it is scarce. A public good thrives because it isn’t scarce; because it is abundant. The publice library is, by design, non-excludible – it is, by design, made to provide an abundance of goods.

    Thanks again.

  3. Santiago Gala

    Ben, I imagine you will have checked the stuff about the economy of attention, like


    I think the reason why economists define public goods in negative terms is because (classical) economy is about resource allocation and dealing with scarcity.

    In an economy of attention, funny enough, public goods become more and more valuable the *less* time we have to enjoy them, because the scarce resource is no longer the good, but the attention people can devote to “consume” them. In such a framework, the definition of a public good is one that everybody can enjoy (i.e., pay attention to) without limitation.

    In this sense, I’m not sure if I follow your reasoning on conflicts, but it looks like we are (I at least) actually exploring virgin territory here.

  4. Santiago Gala

    Ben, look at note 3 in the URL I posted:

    As will become evident, “employing scarce productive resources,” “produc[ing] various commodities and distributing them for consumption” and “improving patterns of resource allocation” are simply not relevant for what I will argue is unfolding. Nor is this a particularly perspicacious way of examining older economies, .e.g. feudalism.

  5. Kragen Sitaker

    Words that speak to what makes a public good succeed; hmm, how about “funding,” and “expertise,” and “democracy,” and “prosperity.” Maybe also “good judgment”? And “taxation.” And “patronage.” More generically, “generosity.” And “information access.”

    But I think “funding” is probably the most important word there. Not that abundance and collegiality aren’t important; they just don’t approach the importance of the factors mentioned above, in my view.

    The economists’ words aren’t about what makes a public good succeed; they’re about what distinguishes a public good from any other kind of good. Originally I thought you were trying to rephrase that same definitional distinction into words that would make sense to people who actually like and understand public goods, rather than seeing them as an atypical corner case that’s hard to handle.

  6. Ben Hyde

    Funding, taxation, patronage… words like that – while all exactly right – are an example of what happens when we come at this from the Economist’s presumption that the public-good is an exceptional case. It is as if one were defining a living thing as not dead.

    Consider sunsets, thunder, gravity, ideas, manners – these are all public goods that don’t get entangled in the scarcity/rivalry mindset of the economist. Remembering of course that there are always those who would “cut down a swing tree.”

    So, what I’ve been trying to do is find positive ways of defining the public good. Ways that help to recognize it on it’s own terms rather than somebody elses. At least for me the terms abundant and collegial seem to be helping. For example when I’m talking to somebody trying to create a public good – say a company wide resource – it helps to make it clear that they should switch from thinking about husbanding it or protecting it in and start thinking about making it accessible and creating a sense of it’s abundance among their target community. That if they are going to worry about anything they should worry most by the appearance of rivalry and the breakdown of the collegial. That last bit seems to help to temper a tendency to for people to get into arguements with the very people they hoped to serve, empower i.e. give the damn thing to.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *