The Voluntary Provision of Public Goods 



Cliff Landesman

(email comments, questions, etc. to "")















June 1995













copyright 1994



The author grants permission for anyone to reproduce any part of this document, or all of it, provided authorship is clearly acknowledged with each copy. Electronic copies are available from the author upon request.




Some people voluntarily provide public goods while others take a free ride. Are the providers acting rationally? Should they instead follow the example of the free-rider? What are the rational and moral justifications for voluntary provision? This dissertation examines five ways to justify voluntary provision: rational prudence, social norms, group agency, fairness, and altruism. It suggests that altruism provides the best possible defense. Considerations of fairness may also provide a justification in some circumstances, but generally this argument is vulnerable to the objection that free-riding is often a legitimate way of protecting oneself from exploitation by other free-riders. In places, the dissertation relies on simple game theoretic models and intuitive economic equilibrium notions to analyze public good situations. The dissertation closes with a discussion of the government's role in providing public goods. An argument is made that, for certain kinds of goods (those over which preferences are public, but whose benefits are private), the standard public goods argument is not appropriate to homogeneous populations. If this is correct, other justifications for governmental provision must be summoned for goods of this form.


Thesis advisor: Gilbert Harman, Professor, Princeton University





I would first like to thank my advisor, Gilbert Harman, for his generous help. He consistently provided very valuable comments with lightning speed. I owe a special debt to Nathan Tawil for reading parts of the dissertation during various stages of development and always offering penetrating and constructive criticism. I would also like to thank the following people for their written or oral comments, encouragement, or assistance in some way: Clancy Bailey, Jerome Berger, Tim Brookes, John Broome, Mary Anne Case, John Collins, Peggy Dean, Mark Debellis, George Downs, Jamie Dreier, Margaret Gilbert, Karen Gold, Cliff Groh, Laurie Hollander, Frank Jackson, Arthur Kuflik, Jamie Mayerfeld, Liam Murphy, Howard Margolis, Martin McGuire, Kirsten Monroe, Karen Needels, Pauline O'Connor, Lee Overton, Derek Parfit, Shanny Peer, Philip Pettit, Nick Richter, Adina Schwartz, Mark Vanroojen, and audiences at Columbia University, Princeton University, and the University of Vermont.


In addition, I gratefully acknowledge the financial support of my parents and grandparents.



Table of Contents



I. Introduction 1

The Problem Defined 1

The Importance of the Problem 10

What Is New Here 18


II. Can Egoists Take Care of Themselves? 24

Preliminaries 24

The Problem of Non-excludable goods 32

Conditional Cooperation 40

Known or homogeneous preferences 41

Cheap communication 49

Solution to bargaining problem 52

Iterated Games 56

Privileged Groups and Selective Incentives 60

Prestige, Pleasure and Guilt 67

Quasi-Causation 73

Patchwork Theory 77


III. The Name of the Game 81

Voluntary Provision as a Prisoner's Dilemma 81

Voluntary Provision as Coordination 90

Assurance 92

Chicken 95

Battle of the Sexes 105


IV. Social Norms 110

Justifications That Appeal to Social Norms 110

Everyday Kantianism 116

No free riding 119

Civic duty 122

Free Riding as Theft 124


V. Group Agency 131

The Metaphysics of Agency 131

When one head is better than two 132

A second argument for social agency 138

Collective Principles of Choice 158


VI. Fairness 167

Goals, constraints and what is fair 167

Comparative Unfairness 175

Fairness as a Constraint 195


VII. Partial Altruism and Two Competitors 203

Utilitarian justification of voluntary provision 204

Objections to Utilitarianism 212

Partial Altruism 223

Objections to Partial Altruism 234

Hybrid Altruism 242


VIII. Is Altruism Self-Defeating? 255

The Prisoner's Dilemma 258

Voting 261

Spouse Selection 265

The Bequest 268

Repeated Sharing 274

The Market 277


IX. Governmental Provision of Public Goods 283

Some arguments against governmental provision 283

Public preference, private benefit goods 297

Conclusion 312


Appendix 315

Unlimited Provision 315

Efficient Provision Without Matching 317

Over-provision With Matching 321


References 323


To view each chapter, click on

Chapter Headings:

 I. Introduction

 II. Can Egoists Take Care of Themselves?

 III. The Name of the Game

 IV. Social Norms

 V. Group Agency

 VI. Fairness

 VII. Partial Altruism and Two Competitors

 VIII. Is Altruism Self-Defeating?

 IX. Governmental Provision of Public Goods

 Appendix and References

[Note: Permission to convert and post this document in HTML format was granted by the author, Cliff Landesman.
. . . . . Leon Felkins, 5/20/1997]

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