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IB DP Economics Study Notes

2.9.2 Provision Dilemma in Public Goods

The intricacies of the public goods concept lead to the emergence of the provision dilemma, a pressing issue that grapples with the supply and accessibility of public resources. Let's navigate through the complexities of this dilemma and discern its ramifications.

Free Rider Problem

When it comes to the provision of public goods, the free rider problem stands as one of the most conspicuous challenges.

An image illustrating the free rider problem

Image courtesy of socialcapitalgateway

Nature of the Problem

  • Non-excludability: Public goods are characterised by their non-excludability. In simpler terms, once a public good is provided, it becomes nearly impossible to prevent individuals from benefiting from it, even if they haven't contributed towards its cost.
    • As an outcome, many choose to avoid paying for the public good, assuming others will shoulder the expenses.
    • If everyone adopts this stance, hoping to 'free ride' on the contributions of others, the public good may never see the light of day or be inadequately provided.

Real-world Examples:

  • 1. National Defence: Every citizen remains protected under the country's defence, regardless of their individual contributions.
  • 2. Public Broadcasting: When a public broadcaster airs a programme, every viewer benefits from it, irrespective of whether they paid the licence fee or not.

Under-provision of Public Goods

The domino effect of the free rider problem is the under-provision of public goods.

Why Under-provision Occurs

  • In a world governed by rational thinkers, if each person seeks to optimise personal gains and decides to free ride, public goods would seldom be provided.
  • Even if altruistic individuals or groups endeavour to fund the good, their limited resources might lead to partial provision.
  • Traditional market dynamics fail when it comes to public goods. Firms, driven by profit, won't have the enthusiasm to produce something they can't guarantee returns on, due to the non-excludability of the good.

Potential Solutions to the Dilemma

Tackling the provision dilemma demands creative and multifaceted solutions:

Voluntary Contributions

  • Crowdfunding Platforms: Modern technology has gifted us crowdfunding avenues. By appealing to the masses, these platforms can generate significant funds. Although this doesn't eliminate free riders, if marketed well, it can encourage many to chip in.
  • Philanthropy: Some affluent individuals or groups may voluntarily fund public goods out of altruism or for reputational benefits.

Government's Role

  • Taxation and Direct Provision: Governments can mandate taxes and use the accrued revenue to produce the public good. This ensures a degree of compulsory payment and the provision of the necessary good.
    • Roads, public libraries, and parks are often funded this way.
  • Legal Obligations: For specific public goods, legal frameworks can be established, compelling citizens to make contributions.

Involvement of the Private Sector

  • Sponsored Public Goods: The private sector can sometimes provide a public good and recoup costs indirectly. Radio stations, for instance, are free to listeners but fund their operations through advertisements.
  • Hybrid Subscription Models: Certain public goods can be transformed into 'club goods' where subscribers receive additional benefits.
    • For instance, a city's botanical garden might be free for all, but subscribers could receive perks like early access to events or discounted merchandise.

Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs)

  • A collaboration between government bodies and private companies can lead to efficient provision. The government might incentivise the private entity through subsidies, exclusive rights, or guaranteed returns.

Grassroots Initiatives

  • Community Funding: Smaller communities might realise the mutual benefits of a public good and collaboratively fund its provision.
    • For example, a neighbourhood might finance a shared playground or community centre.
  • Social Norms and Community Pressure: In closely-knit communities, the desire to maintain social harmony and avoid being labelled a 'free rider' can drive individuals to contribute.

Regulation and Oversight

  • Government Oversight: The government can play a pivotal role in regulating the provision of public goods, ensuring quality and accessibility while curbing malpractices.
  • International Cooperation: For global public goods, such as climate stability or pandemic control, international collaborations and treaties can guide provision and funding.

In delving deeper into the provision dilemma surrounding public goods, it becomes evident that its resolution requires a tapestry of approaches, melding governmental intervention, private enterprise involvement, and community participation. While the journey is challenging, with coordinated efforts, societies can ensure that essential public goods are accessible to all.


The under-provision of public goods can lead to significant losses in economic welfare. When public goods, which have the potential to benefit society at large, aren't adequately provided, society loses out on potential positive externalities. This can manifest as lower productivity, reduced quality of life, or missed opportunities for technological advancement. Additionally, if alternatives to public goods (often inferior or costly substitutes) are used, it can result in inefficiencies and increased costs for consumers. For instance, the absence of public parks might lead to people buying expensive memberships at private clubs. Such shifts can lead to inequalities and misallocations in resource distribution, further compromising economic welfare.

While rare, there are instances where public goods can somewhat escape the free rider problem without direct government intervention. One example is community-funded projects or local initiatives where members of a community voluntarily contribute to a cause they collectively value. Crowdfunding platforms can also play a role. Here, while free riders might benefit, the immediate sense of community, recognition, or personal satisfaction can incentivise enough individuals to contribute. Another example is open-source software. Many developers voluntarily contribute without direct monetary gain, driven by reputation, reciprocity, or intrinsic motivation. Nonetheless, for large-scale public goods, such voluntary contributions usually fall short.

The provision dilemma impacts the private sector in various ways. Firstly, businesses might see opportunities in the under-provision of public goods, filling the gap with private alternatives. For instance, if public transport is inadequate, taxi services might flourish. However, this can lead to higher costs for consumers. Secondly, under-provided public goods like infrastructure can impede business operations, leading to inefficiencies. Poor roads, for example, can increase transport costs. Lastly, businesses might face increased scrutiny or pressure to contribute to public goods provision, either financially or through corporate social responsibility initiatives, especially in areas where they have a significant operational footprint.

The 'Tragedy of the Commons' is a situation where individuals, acting in self-interest, overuse or deplete a shared resource. This is akin to the Provision Dilemma, but instead of under-provision, it's about over-consumption. Both scenarios highlight the inefficiencies arising from individual rational decisions that lead to collective irrational outcomes. In the Provision Dilemma, individual reluctance to pay results in insufficient public goods. In the Tragedy of the Commons, individual overconsumption results in resource depletion. Both situations exemplify the challenges of managing resources or goods that are accessible to all but lack a distinct ownership or payment mechanism.

Market forces rely on the principle that individuals act in their self-interest to maximise utility or profit. With public goods, this self-interest leads to the free rider problem: individuals can enjoy the benefits of a public good without paying for it, given its non-excludable nature. In such scenarios, profit-seeking private producers lack incentives to provide the good as they can't ensure a return on investment. Since market participants don't see the direct benefit of paying for the public good, they're unlikely to voluntarily fund it, leading to its under-provision. Hence, relying solely on market forces doesn't address the inherent challenges of providing non-excludable public goods.

Practice Questions

Explain the 'Free Rider Problem' in the context of public goods and how it leads to the under-provision of such goods.

The Free Rider Problem arises because of the non-excludable nature of public goods. Given that individuals cannot be easily excluded from using a public good once it's provided, many opt not to pay or contribute towards its provision, expecting others to bear the cost. They intend to 'free ride' on the contributions of others. If a significant portion of the population adopts this mindset, the good may not be provided at all or may be inadequately funded. In economic terms, this is known as the under-provision of public goods. The essence is that, if everyone aims to free ride, the good either remains unavailable or is not provided to the optimal level.

Suggest two potential solutions to counteract the under-provision of public goods and briefly elucidate on their effectiveness.

Two potential solutions to address the under-provision of public goods include government intervention and public-private partnerships. Firstly, governments can use taxation to collect funds and then directly provide the public good. This ensures that everyone pays a mandated amount, thus overcoming the free rider issue. Public goods like roads or parks are frequently funded in this manner. Secondly, public-private partnerships (PPPs) involve collaborations between government agencies and private entities. Governments might offer subsidies or exclusive rights to private companies to incentivise provision. Such partnerships can lead to efficient and cost-effective provision of public goods, drawing upon the strengths of both the public and private sectors.

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Written by: Dave
Cambridge University - BA Hons Economics

Dave is a Cambridge Economics graduate with over 8 years of tutoring expertise in Economics & Business Studies. He crafts resources for A-Level, IB, & GCSE and excels at enhancing students' understanding & confidence in these subjects.

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