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Public goods and their ubiquity

Tender signals

by Executive Editors

It is desirable for a polity to agree on a social contract as that is what “we” as a society manage collectively. If there is further agreement that the “we” means that both (public) state and market (private) will be acting in the shared interest of stakeholders from the smallest to the largest, the – somewhat intangible – concept of the social contract and the practical process of public-private-partnership can converge. It hopefully also becomes both economically evident and morally paramount to this polity that the social contract as management of public goods needs to be 100 percent inclusive and can best be applied universally through informal and formal contractual relationships. 

Since the middle of the past century, economists have defined public goods as goods that are accessible to every member of a society. These defined as such goods are thought to be economically non-excludable, meaning that it is too expensive or technically impossible to keep some members of society from accessing them. Herein lies the justification for a society to oblige those who can to contribute to financing them, and the challenge of having some members of society or outsiders taking advantage without contributing economically. They are also thought to be non-rivalrous because the use by one member of society does not diminish or disallow the access of another member. 

Public goods have been commonly associated with the state as their coordinating entity and baseline provider. But the social contract of the digital age and knowledge society seems more complicated than that when it comes to the creation, sustenance, and management of public goods. 

Through technological inventions with universal utility for a society and benefits beyond its borders, like the hammer, the wheel, the light bulb and the radio, unknown individuals and well-known individuals can create and have created public goods – not precluding that they also harvest a private gain from their successful inventiveness. Similarly, one must surmise that markets can produce and promulgate public goods, as the contrapuntal forces of human nature and competitive pressures on small and large enterprises lead them to deliver goods and technologies that vastly expand the public utility of their innovations (examples the lighthouse, VoIP telephony, virtual conferencing and online work from home, or internet knowledge resources such as crowd-sourced encyclopedias). 

As old as time

Before economists declared them, market participants have been co-creating or contributing to public goods for millennia (for one 20th century lighthouse-as-public-goods debate, it would have been fascinating to see if the Phoenician and Greek travel writers of antiquity harbored economic opinions regarding the public-goods implications of the Alexandria lighthouse as one of the seven wonders of their world, but, alas, this angle was forsaken). More current economic insights suggest that market participants are increasingly outputting public goods in the contexts of information societies and digital economies.

As much as aficionados of such intellectual discourses have been held in thrall by almost a century of debates of academic economists over the properties and characteristics of public goods, merit goods, common goods, quasi-public goods and, lately, global public goods, the discourse on the need for public goods in Lebanon may quite safely assume several things.

For one thing, stakeholders seeking the reform of the Lebanese system can assume that erudite discourses on the nature of public goods will neither sway the minds of local policy influencers nor contaminate the decision-making processes of political bodies in Beirut. 

Secondly, the truth is undeniable that public goods have to be protected by a vigilant state and virtuous civil society against private excesses of greed but public goods also have to be protected by private stakeholders against the corruption of public servants and the exhaustion or failures of civil society altruism. For opinionated evidence, just ask a Lebanese if this country’s political and economic systems are impervious to corruption.

A sad further reality in the public-goods question of this country is that strategy papers and (more or less accurately) data-driven discourses on the need to reinvent the education and health systems are desperate bets on reforms to be realized over the next four or five years – but without any budgetary certainty, secured manpower or leadership, and any sign of political will to reform anything. 

But shockingly, and with even greater certainty, it has to be expected that in the coming months more lives will be lost due to insufficient access to healthcare and more futures will be stunted as youth’s education journeys are turned into lost years. 

In this context then, instead of proving ephemeral and elusive in the way of political promises, the social contract need for a new Lebanon aligns with the meme demanding unity of word and deed. The latter meme is ubiquitous across cultures and has been verbalized in many nuanced ways, for example in Confucius’ statement that a gentleman (junzi, individual embodying five constant virtues) first enacts what he preaches and only then follows up with explanations. 

For a solutions-centric national discourse on public goods or, in a spiritually inclined and ethically informed sense, universal goods of education and healthcare that are today in disastrous undersupply in Lebanon, the observation bears repeating that public goods are produced by ethically oriented stakeholders with a variety of public, private, and civil society competencies and authentic motivations for the greater good. Under this perspective, Executive has witnessed, among an ocean of deficiencies in the broken health and education systems, very encouraging signals coming from primary healthcare and from informal education, from partnerships involving local NGOs and international donors, and also from the top tier of tertiary education leaders in Lebanon. 

For the improved management of public goods in a future Lebanon, one would wish for partnerships that reflect the global public-private partnership (PPP) lessons of the last 40 years and are cognizant of the winning trends of the 21st century, that are well structured and transparent, contractual and reliable, results-oriented and governed according to the best principles of accountability. Concepts of unilateral state dominance over public goods should be abandoned in favor of developing new and better public-private and public-private-community partnership formulas. 

But the most impactful message – both in the sense of unity of word and deed and in the sense of effective and practical responses to need – is any small, even informal but effective, partnership and joint stakeholder solution that brings health back to patients and provides education access to students – today, not after a reform plan is politically approved and secured with finance. 

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Executive Editors

Executive Editors are the virtuosos behind Executive’s compelling narratives. Over decades, our editorial team has applied a blend of seasoned expertise, intellectual wit, and a discerning eye to bring you insightful and engaging stories that eschew sensationalism
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