2013. Manon Anne Ress. Global Public Goods, transnational public goods: some definitions : How are global public goods defined? Definitions of 'global public goods' as outlined by major contributors to the international debate. (html)
Manon's 2013 collection of quotes is very relevant, but here are some additional definitions. The discussions by Musgrave and Steiner are probably closer to how people actually define public or social goods in practice.
- 1954. Paul A. Samuelson, The Pure Theory of Public Expenditure,The Review of Economics and Statistics,Vol. 36, No. 4 (Nov., 1954), pp. 387-389. (pdf)
- 1955. Paul A. Samuelson, "Diagrammatic Exposition of a Theory of Public Expenditure," The Review of Economics and Statistics, Vol. 37, No. 4. (Nov., 1955), pp. 350-356. (pdf)
- 1965 (originally) Mancur Olson, the Logic of Collective Action, 2002 (twentieth printing). Excerpt: (pdf)
- 1973. Richard A. Musgrave, Public Finance in Theory and Practice. Chapter 3, Theory of Social Goods (pdf).
- 1986-1988. Joseph Stiglitz, Economics of the Public Sector, 2nd Edition (pdf). Excerpt from Textbook.
- 1997. Richard Holcombe, A Theory of the Theory of Public Goods. Review of Austrian Economics, 10, No. 1; pp 1-22. (pdf)
- 1997. Peter O. Steiner, Public Expenditure Budgeting, in Studies of Government Finance, the Brookings Institution. (pdf)
A polar-case model of government. Doctrinal history shows that theoretical insight often comes from considering strong or extreme cases. The grand Walrasian model of competitive general equilibrium is one such extreme polar case. We can formulate it so stringently as to leave no economic role for government. What strong polar case shall the student of public expenditure set alongside this pure private economy?
. . . A public consumption good, like an outdoor circus or national defense, which is provided for each person to enjoy or not, according to his tastes. I assume the public good can be varied in total quantity, and write X2 for its magnitude. It differs from a private consumption good in that each man's consumption of it, X1 and X2 respectively, is related to the total X, by a condition of equality rather than of summation. Thus, by definition, X1 = X, and X2 = X.
Obviously, I am introducing a strong polar case. We could easily lighten the stringency of our assumptions. But on reflection, I think most economists will see that this is a natural antipodal case to the admittedly extreme polar case of traditional individualistic general equilibrium. The careful empiricist will recognize that many -though not all -of the realistic cases of government activity can be fruitfully analyzed as some kind of a blend of these two extreme polar cases.