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Public Goods and “Free Rider” Problem


Public goods are crucial to society. They include essential and non-essential aspects of modern life. However, despite their importance, they are often damaged by careless or deliberately malicious legislations, natural disasters, and other issues. This paper will present an overview of public goods, the challenges that affect them, and the “free-rider” problem.

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By nature, public goods are non-excludable and non-rivalrous goods meaning that no one can be excluded from using it and their use does not lessen their availability. This is the main difference between a private good that is limited and has to be purchased and a public good that can be received almost indefinitely and without forced payments. A list of public goods may include fresh air, street lighting, public parks, public decorations, national security, flood control systems as well as tornado early warning systems, lighthouses, and a lot of other things that benefit all people (Monroe, 2015).

Usually, public goods are provided by the government because the private sector cannot supply them for a profit. However, the government may choose to provide subsidies that would allow a contribution from the private sector to the public goods. Governments are in a unique position in comparison to the private sector because they are able to fund public goods through taxes and the question of profit is less relevant if the estimated social benefits of the public good are large enough (Freund & Blanchard-Fields, 2014).

Public goods are often challenged by various factors. Some of the most threatening is tied to the increased pollution of the air and water. The recent change in the government’s perspective on environmental safety has caused a great number of dangerous allowances for heavy industries. Environmental disasters that were already caused by large industrial projects and the release of pollutants into the atmosphere are likely to increase in the coming years resulting in damage to the most important public good – clean air. Natural disasters can be highly destructive to the infrastructure of towns and cities. This is why such public goods as flood control systems are crucial. A flood can lead to a lot of public goods becoming unavailable.

The “Free Rider” Problem

Perhaps the most controversial and damaging challenge for public goods is the so-called “free-rider” problem. It is a direct product of the non-excludable nature of public goods. This problem describes the act of using public goods without contributing to it which can lead to the loss of the public good if too many individuals become “free riders.” This problem is often addressed by the government by making provisions of the public goods involuntary through taxes.

Other governmental solutions might force people to use cars that produce fewer emissions or make mandates on installing wheelchair ramps in businesses to allow people with disabilities to take full advantage of the business. Voluntary organizations are one of the few that can provide public goods without the presence of governments. For example, health organizations that are focused on disease prevention and treatment such as the Red Cross, or free information kiosks that allow people to use the internet publicly are voluntary organizations. They are supported only by a charity and require frequent donation drives (Stiglitz & Rosengard, 2015).


Public goods provide important services to everyone. They may be as simple as fresh air and as complex as natural disaster prevention systems. The “free rider” problem puts these goods in jeopardy, but it could be overcome through a variety of means.

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Freund, A., & Blanchard-Fields, F. (2014). Age-related differences in altruism across adulthood: Making personal financial gain versus contributing to the public good. Developmental Psychology, 50(4), 1125-1136.

Monroe, K. (2015). Science, ethics, and politics: Conversations and investigations. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Stiglitz, J., & Rosengard, J. (2015). Economics of the public sector (4th ed.). New York, NY: Norton & Company.

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