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How do we determine what is 'good' for society?

September 25, 2013

Project Humanities at Arizona State University is challenging economists and government leaders to ponder the rules that shape and govern society.

In economics, public goods are described as services that are available to everyone at no cost. Under this context, the consumption of these goods by a single person does not have an effect on the ability for others to consume this item. A few basic examples of this are fresh air, knowledge and information goods.

With this broad of an outline, who determines what is “good” for society and how do they do so? Kerry Smith, a Regents’ Professor and W. P. Carey professor of economics, says that consumer sovereignty ultimately has the final say.

Under this theory, Smith believes that the public demand for a good is what determines the success or failure. If the demand is high, production will increase and consumers will continue to purchase the good in the future. Reversely, poor demand will result in the production of a good coming to an end.

In government, however, elected officials must find a balance between what the community desires and what is best for everyone.  

“It is our job, in my opinion, to be educated stewards of directional choices. To not simply see the horizon, but see what is beyond it and make choices now that best address future needs. This means sometimes making choices that are not popular with people now, but will show future insight in 20 years,” said Kolby Granville, Tempe City Council member.

Jayson Matthews, chief development officer at the United Food Bank, believes that upbringing, environment and perspective are influential factors in this ability to show foresight.  

“For some, the protection of human life and property is the only key factor and it can only be measured in the amount of police officers that are employed. For others, a strong and vibrant arts community is the only key factor for a 'good' society. In my opinion, a key factor in a 'good' society is comprised of engaged individuals who participate in voting in elections, volunteering for charity,” he said.

To create a more vibrant future, Smith believes that society must use the idea of incentives to persuade the public to act on desired outcomes. For example, promoting sustainable initiatives requires one to think about creating a better future for their children or grandchildren to whom they hold a personal connection.

Granville largely agrees, but adds that society should question ways to sustain future cities based on the problems of today, like oil dependency and population growth.

“Gas prices will continue to rise because of growing oil demand in India and China. The real questions is, knowing that if just five percent of China decides to buy a car there are millions of additional cars competing for limited gas resources, and gas is now $5 or $10 a gallon in today's dollars, what will cities look like?” he said.

What do you think? Weigh in on the discussion by visiting the Project Humanities Facebook page now.