Public goods are things that we all share and consume. They cannot be taken away from anyone.
They’re things that are available, free at the point of use, to everybody.
They can be both natural goods (like air) and man-made services (like the fire service). Some other examples of public goods are:
- National Defense
- Clean Air
- Flood Control
Public goods are often provided by the government because it is difficult for private companies to profit from providing them. This is because it is hard to exclude people from using the good and people can free-ride on others’ provision of the good.
Public Goods Definition
A public good is a good that is non-excludable and non-rivalrous:
- Non-excludable means that it is impossible to prevent people from using the good.
- Non-rivalrous means that one person’s use of the good does not diminish another person’s ability to use it.
Public Goods Examples
1. Public Beaches
Beaches are a great example of a public good. In many areas of the world, they’re open to everyone and no one can be excluded from using them. Additionally, one person’s use of the beach doesn’t stop others from being able to enjoy it too.
In some countries, such as Australia, beaches are protected land. Nobody is allowed to own them privately. But in some European resort cities, beaches can be owned by private resort companies and you have to pay to sit in that area of the beach. In these cases, the beach loses its status as a public good.
2. Clean Air
Clean air is the quintessential public good. Once it’s polluted, everyone suffers the consequences, regardless of whether they contributed to the pollution. And no one can be excluded from breathing air, making it non-excludable.
This is one reason why environmental activists want governments to prevent big industries from polluting. Their pollution of the air harms everyone and often goes unpunished. They are damaging a public good.
Climate change has highlighted just how much the world’s climates are shared by everyone. The climate doesn’t stop at national borders. As climate change speeds up, natural disasters are getting more severe and more common all around the world.
This is why the world’s nations have to work together to decrease the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and pull together.
4. The Constitution
The US Constitution was created as a document that sets out a range of fundamental rights for all Americans.
The rights enshrined in this document are seen as public goods in the eyes of the court. Examples of rights enshrined in the US Constitution include the right to a fair trial, the right to an attorney, and protection from unreasonable searches and seizures.
Your use of these rights does not exclude others from using it, making the rights both non-excludable and non-rivalrous.
Despite the principle of equal access, critics would note that these rights are not perfectly distributed. For example, discrimination in the police force and judiciary may mean minorities don’t get to exercise their rights.
Cycleways provide a non-polluting, healthy form of transport that can be used by everyone. They’re generally free to use and public spaces set up by local governments.
They don’t produce any carbon emissions and, therefore, are good for the environment. And, because they’re non-rivalrous, one person’s use of a cycleway doesn’t stop others from being able to use it.
In many cities, cycleways are being created to encourage people to cycle more. They’re often segregated from cars to make them safer for cyclists.
Democracy is, in principle, nonexclusive and nonrivalrous. It should be provided to all adult citizens without discrimination. Similarly, it’s nonrivalrous in the sense that your right to vote doesn’t take away someone else’s right to vote.
However, nefarious actors in search of power regularly try to restrict people’s right to vote. For example, ballot boxes may be harder to access in poor black neighborhoods, gerrymandering dilutes your vote, and many states in the USA deny people with felonies the right to vote.
In each of these cases, the principle of nonexclusionary democracy is diluted.
7. Fire Services
The problem of fire emergencies necessitates a public fire service. If one house starts burning and isn’t put out, it can lead to the spread of city fires, such as with the Great Fire of London or Great Chicago Fire.
As a result, most societies have fire services that are non-excludable and non-rivalrous. One potential flaw, however, is that, during forest fires, the fire service can be stretched too thin. In these cases, they may become rivalrous, or the fire service would have to triage their services.
8. Flood Control
Floods don’t discriminate. They will wash through an entire city. To address this, communities have developed dams and dykes that prevent floods when there are surges in rivers.
Flood control services are non-rivalrous because they protect everyone indiscriminately. They are also non-exclusive because they protect everyone equally.
Footpaths are a public good because they are free to use, no one has to compete for access to them, and everyone has access if they want.
Nearly all of the time, a footpath is a true public good. However, some problems occur that make them exclusive. For example:
- People with disabilities may be excluded if, for example, the footpath has stairs that wheelchair users can’t access.
- The police may enforce an injunction banning protesters on footpaths if their activities are restricting other people’s access to the footpaths.
Forests are public goods because everyone can access them, and use of them doesn’t restrict others’ use of them. They also provide many public goods. They improve air quality, prevent soil erosion, and provide habitats for wildlife. They also store carbon, which helps to mitigate climate change.
However, if a person destroys the forest, such as if they cut down trees, then they destroy the forest for everyone. In this sense, it’s a public good that can be destroyed with poor stewardship.
11. Free Speech
Freedom of speech is a public good because it theoretically can’t be taken away from anyone. In the court of law in the United States, you will have your right to free speech protected. It allows people to freely express their opinions and hold the government to account.
This public good has been the subject of a lot of scrutiny since the rise of social media platforms. Social media are allowed to kick people off their platform due to community standards in their place of business (e.g on Twitter). As a result, the public good exists in theory but is curtailed in some public squares.
A greenway is a stretch of land that’s been set aside for public use and enjoyment. They can be used for recreation, such as walking, cycling, and picnicking. They can also be used for environmental conservation.
Greenways are non-rivalrous because one person’s use doesn’t stop others from using them. They’re also non-exclusive because anyone can use them.
13. Herd Immunity
Herd immunity is when a population is immune to a disease because a high percentage of people are immune. This can be due to vaccination or previous exposure to the disease.
Herd immunity is a public good because it protects people who can’t be vaccinated, such as babies or people with weakened immune systems. It also protects people who haven’t been exposed to the disease before. However, it only works if a high percentage of the population is immune.
Once herd immunity is achieved, it’s a benefit for everyone. It doesn’t exclude anyone and people don’t have to compete to get it.
Libraries are public goods that provide free access to books and other resources. They also provide a space for the community to come together and interact.
They are a vehicle for achieving access and opportunity to knowledge for everyone, but especially poor people who can access information that is behind paywalls. As a result, this is one of the most important social-democratic institutions in modern democracies.
A central concept for the library is that it is free to everyone and non-discriminatory. The one caveat to the non-rivalrous principle is that you often need to be put on a waitlist if the book is currently in use by someone else.
Lighthouses provide a necessary service to ships at sea. They warn ships of dangerous coastline and help them to navigate. They’re generally operating 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and are there for the consumption of all seafarers.
Lighthouses can’t be offered for one ship in the harbor but not others. The lighthouse is either there for everybody or nobody. In other words, they are nonrivalrous and nonexclusive.
One could make the argument that mountains are public goods because everyone can access them and use them. They provide habitats for wildlife, store carbon, and are a source of freshwater.
Hiking is therefore one of the most accessible pastimes. People can hike in the mountains at no cost. However, sometimes this public good can be spoiled. For example, councils may charge parking or park use fees, or the land can be sold off to the forestry industry.
17. National Defense
When it comes to national defense, we’re all in it together. The military has to protect all of us or none of us. In this sense, it is non-exclusionary. We all benefit from it.
Similarly, the fact that you benefit from national defense doesn’t stop others from benefiting from it, too. Either we’re all protected, or none of us are.
International treaties such as NATO try to extend the principle of defense as a public good to allied nations. NATO member states all share the security of being protected by the collective militaries of all nation-states. The protection that NATO affords to Poland does not exclude Canada, also a NATO member, from enjoying the same protections.
18. National Monuments
National monuments are public goods that are created to preserve history. They’re managed by the government and are open to everyone, meaning they’re nonexclusive. Your ability to enjoy the monuments doesn’t restrict others’ ability to enjoy them.
Governments make national monuments free in order to make sure history and culture are preserved. For example, the Taj Mahal, one of India’s most beautiful pieces of architecture and a national monument. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site. The government of India has made it free to enter in order to encourage more people to visit and appreciate the monument.
19. National Parks
National parks are intended to preserve natural landscapes and habitats for wildlife. Like national monuments, they’re managed by the government and are open to everyone, making them nonexclusive.
National parks are usually free to enter, but sometimes there are costs associated with activities like camping or using the facilities. For example, in the United States, the US National Park Service charges for camping, but the entrance to the park is free.
20. National Weather Service
The National Weather Service is a public good because it’s a service that benefits everyone. The information that the National Weather Service provides is nonexclusive and available to all. Once the weather report is released, anyone can access and use it.
Furthermore, the weather report is usually broadcast on media that are public goods, such as free-to-air television and public radio stations. Today, it’s also displayed on our phones for free, for ease of access.
While most of us use this service to choose how to dress for the day, it’s also vital for people like rescue crews in mountains, shipping vessels, and airlines. These reports are vital for the daily operation of those businesses.
Outside of maritime boundaries, there is a vast amount of ocean that is a global public good. In many ways, the ocean is outside of the scope of national norms and laws.
In international waters, people can fish, sail, and travel with few restrictions. This makes the ocean a global commons. However, this also means that there is no one to police the ocean, leading to environmental problems like pollution and overfishing.
Whereas once the human population wasn’t great enough for overfishing to be a concern, today, overfishing may mean the ocean is no longer a public good as it becomes rivalrous. If one person overfishes, then others can’t catch fish themselves. We call this the tragedy of the commons.
22. Official Statistics
Official statistics collected by the government are public goods because they provide information that is beneficial to society, are free to access by anyone, and are nonrivalrous because your access to them does not limit mine.
Examples of official statistics include population data, GDP, inflation rates, and employment figures. These statistics are collected through a census or other means such as public surveys.
This data is then used by businesses, governments, and researchers to make important strategic decisions.
23. Open-Source Software
Open-source software is software that anyone can access and change the code for. The code for open-source software is publicly available, can be used by anyone and everyone, and your use does not restrict mine.
Examples of open-source software include the the Linux operating system, the Firefox web browser, and the Android mobile operating system.
Not all software is open-source, however. Rather, the writers of the code have to give explicit permission to others to allow it to be used.
24. Police Force
A police force is a public good because it’s a service that benefits everyone in society, and is supposed to be provided for all without discrimination. The police are put in place by the government to protect us from crime and keep the peace.
This good (or, rather, service) is made public because it’s in everyone’s interest, regardless of ability to pay. If poor people didn’t get access to police services, then there would be an underclass of anarchy and the wealthy would have to retreat into private gated communities.
And in fact, in parts of the world (such as suburbs of Brazil), this is indeed the case.
25. Public Domain Images and Literature
Some creative works that are still in circulation 70 years after the author’s death become public domain. This means that anyone can use it without crediting the author. (Although this is not the case for everything – e.g. Renaissance art is ‘owned’ by private people as the copyright passes from owner to owner).
Examples of famous public domain literature include Moby Dick, Pride and Prejudice, and Dracula. Anyone can use and distribute these texts for free.
Some other public domain art is declared public domain by their authors. In these cases, the author gives up all copyrights.
Public domain images, for example, are provided as a great resource for bloggers, students, and even professional designers. They can be used nonexclusively by anyone. Your use of the images doesn’t infringe my right to use them.
26. Public Fireworks
On special events like New Year’s Eve, many councils put on a public fireworks display. Fireworks can be considered a public good because anyone, all over the city, can watch and enjoy them free of charge.
The fireworks are nonexclusionary because everyone can see them in the sky. They’re also non-rivalrous because your enjoyment of them does not limit mine.
Nevertheless, in recent years, they’ve been restricted due to concerns about the amount of pollution they can cause – this restricts our enjoyment of another public good: clean air.
27. Public Highways
Public highways are paid for by our taxes and are available for any driver to use, without restriction.
Of course, there are a range of rules that make highways a non-perfect public good. For example, hitchhikers are often banned from using them. Similarly, drivers need a driver’s license, cannot drink and drive, and must be able to afford a car.
In recent decades, pay-per-use roads and highways (common, for example, in Sydney Australia) have made roads exclusionary. These can be constructed by either private companies (with the consent and participation by the government) or governments themselves who want to recuperate their investment.
28. Public Television
Public television is provided in many countries around the world as a public information service. The public station is broadcast to everyone free of charge so they can be provided information that is in the public interest.
Because everyone can watch the same television on their channel at the same time, this service is nonrivalrous.
Examples of public television stations include ABC in Australia, CBC in Canada, and BBC in the UK. There are also international arms of certain stations, such as France 24, which are made free for use by people around the world. Many of these stations were set up to project liberal-democratic values into communist and authorisation countries in a show of soft power.
Radio waves are impossible to restrict, making them instantly nonexclusionary. Anyone with a transistor radio can tune into any station.
It’s also nonrivalrous because everyone can tune into a station at the same time.
This means that radio stations need another way to make money: advertising. In exchange for this free public good, we have to listen to ads every now and then where local companies promote their goods and services.
Like television, there are also international radio stations designed as a public good for the whole world. Radio Free Europe is a famous example, which was designed by the CIA to project a liberal-democratic ideology into communist nations.
Space is the next frontier of public goods. At the moment, anyone can theoretically go to space, use space, and even set up a colony in space! The only thing stopping you is money.
In the future, there will need to be global agreements on how much space is privatized and monetized. Similarly, as the lower orbit atmosphere becomes littered with satellites, it’s possible that it will become rivalrous, whereby people have to make sure their satellites don’t run into one another.
For now, we will have to content ourselves with looking up at the stars at night, enjoying the public good from a distance.
Streetlights are a public good because everyone can enjoy the light. It can’t discriminate – if the space on the street is lit up, then it’s lit up for everyone!
They’re also nonrivalrous because your use of the light doesn’t restrict my use of the light.
However, they’re not without controversy. For example, if streetlights are provided first to wealthier areas of a city while poorer areas don’t get them (or don’t have them maintained), then the distribution of the public good makes them exclusive.
32. The Sun
As solar power gets ever-cheaper, people are looking to the sun as a never-ending source of energy and electricity.
The excitement about this public good is that it can energize every house, for free. Everyone can use the sun simultaneously. And as solar pannels get good enough to work through clouds, they’re becoming even more powerful.
But, in reality, the sun has been an important public good since the beginning of time. It provides us with warmth and feeds the crops on everyone’s fields.
33. Trade Winds
The term “trade winds” originally referred to the winds that blew from the southeast to the northwest, allowing ships to trade goods between Europe and the Americas.
These days, the term is used to describe any large-scale wind system that Blow in a fairly consistent direction. For example, there are trade winds in the southern hemisphere that blow from east to west.
Trade winds were (and still are) a public good because everyone – no matter your nationality – can sail into them and use them to travel across the Atlantic Ocean. They don’t stop blowing if there are too many people using them, so there is no rivalry for their use.
34. Universal Healthcare
In all but one of the advanced economies in the world, healthcare is provided as a universal public good that is free at the point of service.
The principle of universal healthcare is that it does not let poor people behind. In other words, it’s designed so healthcare providers won’t discriminate against the poor. Similarly, it’s designed so everyone can use it, no matter the circumstance. It’s supposed to be nonrivalrous.
However, if a healthcare system becomes too stretched, rivalry does appear. To address this, a society will either triage access so people get access based on need, or a pay-per-use system is introduced for non-urgent care.
Rivers that run through towns generally don’t belong to anyone. They are generally managed and regulated by the government. Upstream pollution of the waterways may cause harm to people downstream.
It’s nearly impossible to prevent people form using waterways – e.g from swimming in them – but governments will often try to pass bylaws to protect people if the waterways are polluted or become dangerous.
Shortly after the internet emerged, a free encyclopedia called Wikipedia came online. Wikipedia was contributed to by users and designed to be a free-for-all source of knowledge online.
This is the 21st Century free encyclopedia.
And, unlike a physical encyclopedia, everyone can access it at once, making it truly nonrivalrous.
The one remaining concern about Wikipedia is that it is still exclusionary. You need the internet to access it. Fortunately, you can utilize the library – another public good – to access it.
37. YouTube videos
Like Wikipedia, YouTube is free at the point of use. Anyone can upload videos and anyone can view them, so long as you have an internet connection (which anyone can access at the library!)
YouTube is therefore becoming a public good full of instructional and informational videos for everyone’s use.
We can also start to see social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok as public goods because they’re free to access and important public squares of the 21st Century.
Public goods are those that are non-excludable and non-rivalrous in consumption. This means that it is impossible to exclude anyone from using the good, and one person’s use of the good does not diminish its availability for others.
The value of public goods lies in the fact that they are available to everyone and provide a benefit to society as a whole. While private goods can be produced and provided by businesses for profit, non-natural public goods must be provided by the government because they’re not profitable.
This can be seen as a drawback, as it means that tax dollars must be used to fund public goods, but it also ensures that everyone has access to them.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.