The Collective Provision of Collective Goods

The Collective Provision of Collective Goods

Previously, I introduced the idea that the government cannot compel citizens to exercise their rights. They can’t deprive them of those rights, but neither can they tell them they must use them.

At least, I think that’s true, and I made an argument for its truth here.

But strangely (at least to me), at least a couple of cities have, in fact, mandated the exercise of a right, and a couple of state legislatures have contemplated it as well, when it comes to the Second Amendment.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in 2013, and in the shadow of proposals to significantly tighten gun controls, the little Georgia town of Nelson passed an ordinance requiring homeowners to own a gun and ammunition. In doing so, they joined the nearby town of Kennesaw, Georgia, which apparently adopted a gun requirement way back in 1982 as a response to national conversations about gun control after the attempted assassination of President Reagan.

Both ordinances allow homeowners to opt out simply because they object to owning a gun (or, perhaps, being required to own one), so the sense in which they actually are “mandates” is weak at best.

But the two-fold message they deliver seems clear, at least to me.

On the one hand, such an ordinance makes a symbolic statement advocating the exercise of citizens’ Second Amendment rights . . . though in the peculiar form of mandating their exercise.

On the other hand, they seem to declare the community’s professional public safety resources are inadequate to the task of preserving public safety. Consequently, every homeowner must be prepared to engage in armed combat. In the case of Nelson, at least, this isn’t merely to protect one’s own home. The ordinance offers, as part of its rationale, that the ordinance is necessary to “provide for the emergency management of the city” and to “provide for and protect the safety, security and general welfare of the city and its inhabitants.”

I wonder if the next requirement will be for every homeowner to have a large fire extinguisher and bottled oxygen, in case a fire breaks out in a neighbor’s home and someone there suffers from smoke inhalation. Or (more practically) a portable automatic defibrillator in case that neighbor suffers a heart attack.

We, as citizens of cities, have choices here. We can decide that collective goods (like public safety) are matters of sufficient collective concern that they justify united efforts to provide them. Or we can decide that collective goods are important enough that each citizen should be obligated to make their own personal investment in their provision.

Both approaches have been tried in this country over the course of our history. But in most cases, communities and states (and, indeed, the nation as a whole) have determined over time that we are better off investing in the provision of these collective goods by professional employees than by relying on the best efforts of each citizen individually. It’s why we have police departments and fire departments, as well as an army and a National Guard, among many other things.

The professional approach requires a collective investment and is, quite likely, more expensive on the front end than distributing the task to all and expecting all to contribute. But history is clear that the professional approach produces better outcomes, reducing costs in the long run and preserving other values better (like life, liberty and property).

I understand the symbolic value of ordinances like those in Hamilton and Kennesaw. I just hope we’ll never confuse symbolism with meeting our communities’ needs.