Illuminating a Pakistani debate
Two of Pakistan’s perspicacious commentators on military affairs have thrown in their arguments on the issue of whether defence is a public good. [See Ayesha Siddiqa’s piece in Dawn and Ejaz Haider’s response in Daily Times]
Some confusion arises because they conflate defence and the military. The use of the word adjective military as a synonym for armed forces (noun), in the American style, is already a source of confusion. But it’s not hard to inject clarity into the debate.
The simplest definition of a public good in economics is something that is non-rival and non-excludable. In other words, something is a public good when one person’s consumption does not come at the cost of another’s, and when it is exceedingly difficult to prevent any person from using or benefiting from its use. Like the perfect black body that is familiar to students of physics, perfect public goods do not exist, yet the concept helps create analytical frameworks and derive public policy prescriptions.
So national defence, an abstract noun, is a public good. It is so in Pakistan as much as it is in South Africa and Mexico. It is so because when Pakistan defends Dr Siddiqa against an invasion by Mexico, it does so without subtracting from Mr Haider’s defence; and also because when it defends either of them, it can’t exclude their editors from protection against the Mexican invasion. There is no real debate on whether defence in the abstract is a public good or not.
But because Pakistan, like most countries, employs professional armed forces (the ‘military’) to provide the defence, the debate then becomes one of how efficient and effective the armed forces are in providing the public good. It’s no different from debating just how effective is the national environmental agency in ensuring that there is fresh air in the country.
That is the problem with Dr Siddiqa’s argument that “defence is a public good so long as it is beneficial to the general public. When it is restricted to a few hundred or thousand people, then it ceases to be a public good, which must be provided for all.” She should have said that Pakistan’s armed forces are not effective in providing the public good, effectiveness being the ratio of actual beneficiaries to the targeted beneficiaries. Since this is a wonkish post, it doesn’t hurt to add that efficiency is another criteria by which the provision of public goods might be assessed. Efficiency is about bang for the buck, and is the matter for another debate.