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COMMENT: Why public goods matter to all of us, rich or poor

Alex T. Magaisa

There is a class of things that economists refer to as “public goods”. They do not diminish in value because others benefit from them and you cannot exclude others from enjoying them. A common example is a street light.


If a tower light is installed in a neighbourhood, everyone will benefit from the light. A car, however, is yours and when you buy it, it does not mean everyone in the neighbourhood can use it. The trouble with public goods is something that economists call the “free-rider effect”. Since everyone can enjoy the good, there is no incentive to pay for it. You can avoid paying for it, thinking someone will install the light anyway. You say, if someone can install the light, why should I pay for it?


Pause for a moment and think of how many times you have avoided paying for something because you think someone else will pay for it. Think of the times that you have tried to dodge paying the tollgate fees on the road because, well, you just do not want to pay.


But here is the problem: if everyone thinks that way, the neighbourhood will end up with no tower light. Or let us use a nose-hitting example: there will be no sewer system and the neighbourhood will stink no end, with sewage running all over the place. I cite both examples because they are quite common in our neighbourhoods, no?


Therefore, such goods are usually provided by a public authority. We call these the government or the city council. That public authority in turn has the power to tax people. Taxes form public funds. So, the public authority uses public funds to deliver these public goods. If a bridge is built, everyone whether rich or poor can use it. If a sewer system is built, everyone can use it


Likewise, no one will want to keep a fire brigade service to themselves at their home, even if they were rich. The likelihood of needing it regularly is slim, so why invest in it? But one day, you may just need it, for example, when your property is on fire. That’ is why it is good to have a public fire brigade service that works. It benefits everyone, rich or poor.


It, therefore, should make sense to ensure that the society to which one belongs has efficient public goods. But there are at least two problems: first, some people, however wealthy, dodge taxes. Well, no one wants to pay taxes, but it is a necessary duty.


Second, those who collect taxes and manage public funds tend to loot them through corruption. And there is lots of corruption in our country. Just look at how elites overprice goods and services they sell to the government. The result is poor public goods.


So, you might end up with a society that has a few very wealthy individuals but extremely poor public goods. You see a Lamborghini on a potholed road or dark streets. It will have no fire brigade service; no ambulance service; no sewer system & other public goods.


The irony is lost on the owners. But worse, many on the side-lines will probably be envying that lifestyle and would do the same thing if they had a chance. They would not be concerned with the quality of public goods and when society gets to that it is a real tragedy.


Some might say, we will build our exclusive schools for our kids. They exist in midst of a sea of poverty. But how safe is it to live in a society where the rest have little access to a decent education? It is good to have a public education system that works because education is good for society. It is therefore worth it to invest in public education.


Some might decide to get together to provide these goods for themselves when they realise the public authority is failing to deliver them. So, a wealthy neighbourhood might build its private sewer system. Even an ordinary community might create a neighbourhood watch committee to provide the public good of security.


COVID19 got people to revive defunct hospitals. The pandemic was a rude reminder of the fact that the public health care system matters to everyone, rich or poor. It is a pity that it is in times of death, especially when a wealthy individual dies, that the stark reality of the paucity of public goods becomes so plain and obvious.


The truth, of course, is most people have been witnessing the terrible decline of public goods for a long time. It is the reality they have lived with for a long time. Unfortunately, those who should care often ignore the pleas of the ordinary people, believing these to be poor people’s problems. Everyone should care about how society is governed and take part in promoting it.


When people like journalist Hopewell Chin’ono are exposing and fighting corruption, they are fighting for public goods that benefit everyone. But he is thrown into jail by President Emmerson Mnangagwa.


Yet, those who loot, the likes of Obadiah Moyo, Prisca Mupfumira, Henrietta Rushwaya, and countless other elites and Politically Exposed Persons (PEPs) are treated with favour and kindness. Deputy Minister of Health Dr. John Mangwiro was recently named in a corrupt deal by the anti-corruption commission. But he was never arrested. He denied it and nothing has been heard since.


MDC Alliance spokesperson, Fadzayi Mahere once said “corruption is killing us” when she delivered a press conference. It was not hyperbole. When babies die in a public hospital because it does not have the basic equipment to save them, it is because public funds for health care are being looted by elites like Obadiah Moyo. Likewise, when someone dies because the sockets are so dated that you cannot use a ventilator.


As I conclude, I return to where I began: since there is little incentive for individuals to pay for public goods, a public authority often must take on that task. But if people either dodge taxes or taxes are looted, the result is catastrophic for everyone. Likewise, if those in charge of public funds are incompetent and misallocate funds away from the provision of public goods, everyone suffers, rich or poor.


We have a duty, all of us, rich or poor to take an interest in how we are governed. The “handiite zvePolitics” mentality must fall. Because even if you do not want anything to do with politics, politics will come to you at critical moments and remind you that it has something to do with you.


We must fix our country.





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