Saturday, 23 November 2013

Enlightened view

Well, I looked at the view out of my window this morning and something interesting had happened:



New street lamps.

I knew that the council were installing new streetlamps. They flagged it up months ago, when they were resurfacing the road. Then last week there was a letter, telling us they were going to do it now. Then holes appeared in the pavement, and then the posts for the new streetlamps. Instead of being on the kerbside like the old ones, they're on the inside of the pavement, right up against the wall, which is good as it makes parking easier and frees up extra space.

But what a surprise to look out this morning and see the new lamp, in all its retro-Victoriana glory. The sort of thing you might expect in a twee new development, or a tourist hot spot, or a museum... But not in a little cul-de-sac side street off the A57. I wonder how well it will stand up to the weather compared to the previous ones.

For anyone who would like to look at more pictures of street lamps, there are plenty here.

Street lights are interesting to economists because they represent a non-excludable public good. It's impossible to limit the enjoyment of them to the people who paid for them. Once someone has paid, everyone benefits whether they've contributed or not. This means that in a classic free market, they are unlikely to be provided. Everyone will want everyone else to pay, and no one will want to fork out for something that others will enjoy for free, at their expense. So non-excludable public goods provide a good argument for taxation to provide services. You can make it a social contract argument - everyone would be happy to pay their share, as long as they could be sure that everyone else was also paying their share, so they would willingly agree to taxation in order to ensure that everyone pays, and everyone benefits.

2 comments:

  1. "...everyone benefits whether they've contributed or not." Some would argue that "benefits" is the wrong word. Not everyone wants streetlights - astronomers, for example, and those who like merely to be able to see stars in the sky. Oh, and people with nefarious intent, I'm sure they prefer working in the dark.

    When we first came to Norfolk we arrived at our rented house after dark one January to find the village in an apparent blackout. We thought there'd been a power cut. It took some getting used to the fact that the village actually had no streetlights at all, and that the locals didn't want them!

    How do economists deal with that?

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  2. Ah, the economists are talking about just the people who do want them - even if everyone did, none of them would be prepared to pay.

    For those that don't want them, they are a non-excludable 'bad' - an externality; a side effect of others' benefit. Like air pollution, for example.

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