Defence, public goods and effectiveness of provision

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.

13 thoughts on “Defence, public goods and effectiveness of provision”

  1. @Nitin:

    Thanks for the illumination. Ayesha and Ejaz had garbled it up till you provided the “kunji”.

    Let me add to the nerdy stuff here. If a public good is “non-excludable”, then how can there be any question about “effectiveness being the ratio of actual beneficiaries to the targeted beneficiaries”. Either all or none.

    When Ayesha refers to “restricted to a few hundred or thousand people”, she is referring to the military elite for whom the military purportedly exists. Hence, the military ceases to be a deliverer of public good.

    The question actually should be: Is Pakistan military, as the instrument of the state, providing the public good — national defence? Or is it only furthering the interests of its top brass? Something like the Mughal Risaldaari system.

    The questions of “effectiveness” and “efficiency” would come much later, only once it has been established that the Pakistani military is providing the public good. They are more valid in the Indian context, where the role of the military is certainly restricted to providing national defence, the recent SCPC fracas notwithstanding.

  2. Nitin:

    Excellent points, as always. Where on earth you find the time to read the stuff that you do, I cannot imagine. Hats off to you.

    But no thanks to you, I wasted my time reading the two articles. While Ms Siddiqa’s article was merely rambling and confused, Mr Haider’s article brought tears to my eyes. The man is not the sharpest knife in the drawer but I imagine that he fancies himself to be a fabulous writer. I eschew his meandered problematising of the nuances of the problematic cleavages of the praetorian military praxis in formalism of organisational discipline.

    OK, now I wasted even more time composing the last one from the funny content-free words Mr Haider spiced his piece with. Thanks a lot, Mr Pai.

    Anyway, the problem arises when people use phrases that they don’t fully understand. Ms Siddiqa uses the phrase “public good” and “the public good” interchangeably. They are not. (She concludes her piece with ” … to engage in debate on defence and to ensure that it serves the public good …”)

    “Public good” is an economics term and “the public good” is something that is beneficial for people in general.

    (I have a minor quibble — I quibble therefore I am — with your definition of public good. It merely has to be non-rival in consumption; non-exclusion is not required. A “pure public good” requires non-exclusion. Then there are “club goods” and so on.)

  3. I should have given some references to my previous frivolous comment in response to Trilok. That “Because it’s there” is supposed to have been the response of George Leigh Mallory when he was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest. He said this in 1922:

    The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, ‘What is the use of climbing Mount Everest ?’ and my answer must at once be, ‘It is no use’. There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behavior of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It’s no use.

    So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for.

  4. Trilok,

    Why does Mexico want to attack Pakistan?

    How should I know? But the Pakistani army is there to provide the public good of defence in case those Mexicans decide to.

  5. Atanu,

    (a public good) merely has to be non-rival in consumption; non-exclusion is not required. A “pure public good” requires non-exclusion.

    Well okay. I meant a “pure” public good. In my book (literally, Frank & Bernanke 2/e) a club good is placed in a different quadrant; and a public good is defined as one that is non-rival & non-exclusive. I don’t have any specific reason to disagree with Messrs Frank & Bernanke. In any case, I think excludability is often a function of technology, so pure public goods usually become less pure as technology marches on.

    Nice point about public good & the public good.

  6. So is it time to dismantle LoP military yet 🙂

    Also, I read an AFP report that US has started training Pak Frontier Corps in counter-insurgency. Train-the-trainer; few trainers slip by to train the so called insurgents. And stalemate…And blow back to eastern border. Back to the 80s, it seems.

  7. Nitin:

    You need a specific reason to disagree with Bernanke? The same Bernanke who is the chairman of the Fed? The same Fed that is at the root of all the financial trouble we are having? Man, you are certainly weird!

    Seriously, though, three things have to be considered in the broad category of public goods: rivalry, excludability, and externalities.

    For those who are interested, here are some notes on public goods from an introductory class I taught at Berkeley.

    Here’s a good piece titled “A ‘public good’ is not just something which is ‘good for the public’” that goes a good deal towards explaining the concept.

  8. On a less serious note – Somebody will hopefully inform the journalist that, a public good is not the same as publicly provided good. While national defense is certainly a publicly provided good, whether it is a pure public good is debatable.
    Defense, a publicly provided good, has to provide the entire Pakistani public with the protection it deserves. [which the Pakistani Army is already doing :)]

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