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Summary and Keywords updated. Text and references expanded, including discussion of Paris Climate Agreement, updates to sections on Social Composition References, and private goods.

Updated on 30 July 2018. The previous version of this content can be found here.
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date: 25 September 2020

Summary and Keywords

Public goods represent a particular challenge in international politics that has been linked to problems as diverse as alliance politics, environmental governance, and global currency systems. In many situations, some form of coordinated collective action is needed to produce public goods. Consequently, provision of public good often serves as a stand-in for theoretical questions related to cooperation in an anarchic system.

Public goods, which have elements of non-rivalness and non-excludability, are often desired by states but can be difficult to produce in the absence of a powerful state willing to provide public goods unilaterally. Non-rivalness refers to the ability of many actors to consume a good. Closely related to the concept of non-rivalness in public goods is the concept of jointness of supply. Jointness of supply means that all parties can enjoy the benefits of consumption with no additional cost required to provide the good to additional individuals.

By contrast, non-excludability implies that once a good has been produced, there are no efficient means of preventing consumption of a good. If both of these conditions are true, then a public good, such as asteroid defense or the elimination of smallpox, could be a benefit to all of humanity once produced. On the other hand, pure public goods are relatively rare. There are variations in which non-rivalness or non-excludability is imperfectly met. Club goods, such as security in alliances, offer viable mechanisms for excluding states from the benefits of a good but may produce goods that are non-rival within the club. Common-pool resources, such as ocean fish populations, are non-excludable but are rival, in that overfishing can reduce fish populations.

Keywords: public goods, collective goods, club goods, common-pool resources, collective action, prisoner’s dilemma, cooperation

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