Abuse of Public Goods

Unless we tame the beast while time is on our side, it will go wilder and give the signal for anarchy to set in, firmly

“There is observed a trend towards an increasing abuse of what are called ‘public goods’ in economics. This type of abuse has consequences for society as a whole. It tends to take a bigger dimension over time and causes much public inconvenience. It is therefore necessary to moderate the phenomenon before it becomes uncontrollable.

A ‘public good’ (e.g., air, street lighting, national defence, infrastructure, law and order) is defined as one the use of which by one individual does not reduce its availability to others. For example, the footpaths of Port Louis are a public good. They are intended to provide the means for pedestrians to move unimpeded from one spot of the City to another. The same is true for all footpaths. When those footpaths had been occupied by street hawkers, until recently, their character as a public good was changed from that of a public good to that of a ‘private good’. The latter category gives right to exclusive enjoyment by whoever has an exclusive right to the amenity, e.g., a private car.

The air that we breathe is a public good. Its availability is non-exclusive, non-rivalrous. The air that you breathe does not cut down on that which I breathe. The only thing authorities in charge of the good running of society do in this respect is to make and enforce laws to keep the quality of the air pure for safeguarding our good health, amongst others.

This consideration is defied, for example, each time ill-maintained buses belch out in the open huge plumes of smoke at start or restart of engine or even when they run their ordinary course on the road. This heavy pollution travels to every nook and corner, from the air you breathe through your nostrils to settling down on the food on display in casual stores at the roadsides. Despite laws restraining CO2 pollution by vehicles, the quality of this ‘public good’, the air quality, is not being protected as it should in this case. Why?

In a place like Mauritius, a bad habit, especially as concerns public goods, once it becomes entrenched, proves very difficult to eradicate.

The street hawker problem is but one of them. The abuse keeps growing with ever increasing impunity once it starts. For example, increasing numbers of ‘transals’ renters were found to be occupying strategic parts of public beaches during the previous government’s term. It was being stated that some of their owners were too close to politicians for the Beach Authority to dare take action to restore the ‘public good’, which is the unhindered use of the beach by the public.

It is this process of escalation of the abuse which makes it very hard eventually to return to the reasonable status quo of fully protecting the true nature of ‘public goods’. Private interests over the ‘public good’ become so deeply entrenched over time as to become a veritable challenge to put back order into the situation. Thus, some land owners claim ‘rights’ over streams of water passing in the vicinity of their lands, despite all water rights, underground or over ground, being vested in the Central Water Authority by statute. Where they don’t claim such ownership, some others throw industrial and other waste into river streams which form part of the public domain. The misdeed has already been done by the time those in charge of enforcing non-polluting regulations come on the “scene of crime”.

Whether in the relatively smaller or at the bigger range, the tendency is to go on encroaching on what is essentially in the ‘public’ domain. Boards of public bodies or certain of their members, individual bureaucrats vested with high power and politicians keep in their hands a certain amount of overturning “discretion” in decision-making, which is often put to use to the detriment of the public interest. Accordingly, the public interest is deliberately overtaken as it suits specific private conveniences.

Take the issue of tents being pitched from time to time on public roads for wedding ceremonies. The tents are set up on roads in front of or by the side of residences which have not actually been designed for hosting receptions during ceremonies. Those who thus “occupy” the public roads convert the roads into locations for hosting ceremonies. The better alternative would have been to rent out alternative infrastructure in places which are specially designed for such receptions. Or, if it is really unavoidable, the public road should be allowed to be only partially occupied for a strictly limited time so that traffic and people can still continue to ply over the permitted inevitable slot needed to occupy the public domain.

But no, why not put a ‘No Entry’ sign simply with the approval of local authorities much to everybody else’s inconvenience, and thus deny road access to the public at large for whom the roads have actually been designed. Even though there may be a couple only of ceremonies lasting two to three hours each on particular days, public roads occasionally get “occupied” continuously sometimes from Friday up to Tuesday next week. Rationalisation is necessary.

Besides, were the local authority to charge a time-bound amount for road use for such purposes as a deterrent to abuse, there is a chance that reception halls designed for the purpose may start being more extensively used by those who can actually afford them. That doesn’t appear to be happening. The risk is therefore that the abuse will keep escalating much to the greater inconvenience of the public and with the accompanying problems.

This kind of phenomenon is usually referred to as the “free rider” problem in public economics. Not only are negative externalities created for the public by encroaching upon the public domain. As in the case of the street hawker problem, a person may well say: “if so-and-so is taking advantage of the system, I can do that as well.” Finally, the situation can become so extensive as to become unmanageable. The authorities would do well to temper exaggerations and lead by example.

Unfortunately, there is a proliferation of this type of abuse. This is what happens when those whose duty it is to ensure that ‘public goods’ are treated as ‘public goods’ fail to do their duty by assigning them to private use instead. From street hawkers to air polluters, from de-foresters of national parks to tent builders on public roads, the abuse of ‘public goods’ has been increasing, not decreasing. One abuse evolves into another. A small scale of abuse tolerated at first ends up assuming an ever increasing proportion with time. Authorities seem to turn a blind eye when it suits their convenience.

You as a responsible citizen need to report to those in charge of keeping watch over excessive decibels being blurted out of loudspeakers or beyond the legal hours for emitting such disturbances, for, they who have been put in charge of such matters, will rarely take the initiative to stop the nuisance of their own. Will not those in charge of street lighting similarly act to replace burnt lamps only after you complain because it’s not part of their duty, apparently, to make regular rounds to replace whatever needs replacement?

As experience here and from some backward places shows, this drift towards non-compliance with rules regarding public goods results in abuse, in ever greater amount over time. In other places which are stricter, such as Singapore, those who walk the streets will not dare throw cigarette butts here and there because they will be spotted out easily and fined so much that they will cease cultivating the bad habits altogether. Normally, right reasonable persons would have decided on their own not to do things that hurt others without being coerced into so doing by law enforcement. Unless we tame the beast while time is on our side, it will go wilder and give the signal for anarchy to set in, firmly.

Anil Gujadhur

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