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Paul Buchanan On Public Goods and Private Bads

Public Goods and Private Bads

A Word From Afar – By Paul G. Buchanan

G. Buchanan – image by Jason Dorday

Much has been written about the difference between public goods and private goods, including issues of fungibility versus liquidity in the allocation of each (public goods are fungible rather than liquid, private goods can be both. Fungible means that something of worth can only be replaced in-kind, in a largely 1:1 transaction. Non- fungible or liquid means that the item can be exchanged for something else of different worth/value)). Less attention has been devoted to the issue of public and private bads, including the responsibility of the state in addressing each. In light of the disasters that have befallen NZ in the last year, it is worth pondering the latter.

The Pike River mine disaster is an example of a private bad. It was human caused, being the result of bad management decisions and poor safety standards within the mine, and affected its employees and profits. However, its impact on the public good was minimal. Even so, lax mine inspection regulations contributed to the explosion and loss of life, which is a public bad because state inaction facilitated the collective tragedy, and the adverse economic impact of the mine’s closure on the local community is also a public bad because it negatively impacts on the community through no fault of their own. The question is, what role does the state have, other than the policing in the aftermath of the event, in addressing the public bad aspects of the disaster?

The Christchurch earthquakes are clearly a public bad. The combined into a prolonged natural disaster, largely unforeseen. The government mobilised resources to address the aftermath, efforts that are still ongoing. But is there a private bad element to the quake? Did shoddy construction contribute to the loss of life and property?

Were regulatory loopholes exploited that exacerbated the impact of the quakes, and if so, what is the state’s role in rectifying those areas in which standards and procedures were skirted. Is it a matter for the industries involved to resolve privately? What happens when private insurers renege on coverage or attempt to minimise payouts?

Does the state have a responsibility to cover the difference in the public interest? Or is that purely a private matter?

The Rena shipwreck is most interesting because it clearly combines the two forms of bad. It started out as a private bad caused, apparently, by gross human error.

National’s response was predictable: it waited for the parties to the contract of the vessel to negotiate a response. And waited. After four days of calm weather and no private response, a storm blew through and began to break the ship apart, spilling part of its load and fuel from ruptured fuel lines. When leaked oil and containers began to hit Bay of Plenty beaches, the disaster became a public bad, at which time the government belatedly intervened, mostly in a support rather than in a leadership role.

This is due to its continued preference for the contracting parties to assume the responsibilities incumbent upon them for having caused a private bad with public ramifications. Meanwhile the environmental impact of the wreck continues to grow, with the costs of the clean up rising and the negative economic impact on local businesses likely to be significant in the measure that the spill is not contained promptly and the clean up process stretches into months. 

In other words, a private bad caused a public bad with private bad implications. Since the National government believes in the primacy of the market and private sector, it has left the bulk of the response to the parties involved, and called for volunteerism (another private act) in its approach to cleaning the beaches.

All of this is quite predictable. The quest for privatisation of the public sphere over the last two decades has reduced the concept of public goods and bads while expanding that of private goods and bads. Left to their own devices in a deregulated public space, private actors will minimize costs and increase risks in the pursuit of profitability. Should an accident such as Pike River or Rena occur, the payouts involved are considered to be acceptable given that they will be less than the costs of compliance in a tightly regulated commercial environment. The calculation is that the costs of occasional “one-offs” (which are not) will be less than the costs of ongoing regulatory compliance. In coal mining and shipping, accidents are not occasional happenstances but regular occurrences so the industries involved are have prepared accordingly (by establishing contingency funds for such events). The difference is that when a private bad becomes a public bad, they have limited contractual responsibility in addressing the latter. It is up to the state to recoup the costs of the public side of the bad incurred, which means taxpayers will have to foot the bill for the legal expenses involved in the court cases taken against the private parties responsible. In some cases–Pike River looks to be one–the state will do nothing of the sort because the public bad aspects are considered to be small, incidental, and not worth prosecution.

It appears that in the rush to privatise sight was lost on the potential public bad caused by private bads. Commercial de-regulation in the pursuit of competitiveness and trade ignores the fact that the private parties in contractual relationships with each other are not, by definition, responsible for the public good. As such, the public bad potential of a private bad event is discounted, in part because private parties know that government’s will be loathe to charge them the full costs of a public bad response less they  be seen as anti-business. In an age when the private sector rules over the public interest, few governments will be courageous enough to incur the wrath of major commercial actors regardless of the latter’s responsibility in causing a public bad.

The problem is compounded by the hollowing out of state regulatory agencies, particularly in their operational capabilities as well as their policy scope. Insufficient regulatory enforcement (such as it is) due to reductions in state regulatory agency workforces, combined with reductions in quick response assets in agencies responsible for disaster relief and mitigation, force the state to contract out the latter in an environment made riskier by de-regulation. Since the skill sets required for disaster relief are often very specialised and limited, given the geographic and logistical difficulties presented by specific scenarios in the time-sensitive context in which the public bad occurs, this places private actors with such skills in a de facto monopoly position over the response in their areas of expertise. This allows them to extract monopoly rather than market rents from the state when contracting such assignments.

The private bad-focused approach can be seen as short-sighted in the measure that de-regulation facilitates private actor irresponsibility, which in turn leads to higher costs for the state in the event that a private bad becomes a public bad. Seen another way, robust state regulation of private industries with potentially injurious public consequences may in fact be more of a cost-savings over the long-run given the inevitability of private sector accidents that negatively impact on the public good.

This is the crux of the matter, and it is the one that should be reflected upon when issues of off-shore drilling, mining, nuclear energy and other private industrial ventures with potentially public bad implications are discussed


Paul G. Buchanan is a strategic analyst and political risk consultant who writes on matters of comparative and international politics. This essay was originally published in

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