Thursday, August 12, 2004

Blogging as a Public Good

As my very brief history of blogging already indicates, I take a keen interest in privately-provided public goods. I’ve already written about street-side landscaping and clean beaches. You can now add blogging itself to that list. Reading a blog does not make it less available to others (absent an extreme case of server overload), thus making blogs non-rivalrous in consumption. Blogs almost always remain open to public scrutiny, too, making them non-excludable. That makes a blog, by the standard definition, a public good.

An aside for the exact: None of the three goods I’ve just mentioned qualifies as non-excludable per se; each could be—and sometimes is—fenced off. Here, as elsewhere, the definition of a public good relies not on its inherent attributes but on contingent facts about the rest of the world, most notably facts concerning the costs of enforcing property rights. You might thus substitute “non-excluded” for “non-excludable” in the definition of a public good. It just goes to show that private parties can cope with the problem of providing public goods simply by making them excludable, thus turning them into toll goods.

For now, though, I’m interested in discussing the mechanisms by which private parties can provide public goods without excluding access to them. By way of the story of Landscaping Man, I discussed the uses of shaming. Glen made much the same point in his post on voting. My description of the San Onofre Surfing Club impliedly demonstrated how private parties can provide a public good (clean beaches) by bundling them with a private good (access to a fun club). Glen did likewise, in his voting post, by suggesting that libertarians could host “voters only” parties.

What about blogs? They appear to constitute public goods (though I guess some wags might quibble about the “good” bit). And private parties certainly appear to provide them in abundance, without the benefit of any statist subsidies. Why?

To answer that question takes more honesty than reflection. Bloggers typically seek social status, something that only audiences can give them. Readers confer status on a blogger through the medium of praise, whether they offer it expressly or impliedly (by dint of links or simple referral counts), and whether they offer it by way of another blog post or a private compliment. Their goals fairly well ensure that bloggers will not exclude access to their posts. The low marginal costs of copying posts ensures that blogs remain non-rivalrous in consumption.

It is not surprising that bloggers seek social status. Most humans do. It does prove somewhat surprising, however, how in their high-tech pursuit of that near-universal drive, individually selfish bloggers have spontaneously created so selflessly generous a public good.

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