Musgrave, Samuelson, and the Crystallization of the Standard Rationale for Public Goods

History of Political Economy (Forthcoming)

45 Pages Posted: 6 Jul 2016

See all articles by Maxime Desmarais-Tremblay

Maxime Desmarais-Tremblay

Goldsmiths, University of London; Centre Walras-Pareto, Université de Lausanne

Date Written: June 29, 2016


This paper provides a narrative of the emergence of the standard textbook definition of public goods. It focuses on Richard A. Musgrave’s contribution in defining public goods as non-rival and non-excludable — from 1937 to 1973. Although Samuelson’s mathematical definition is generally used in models of public goods, the qualitative understanding of the specificity of pure public goods owes a lot to Musgrave. I argue that the evolution of Musgrave’s writings on public goods reflects his intention to justify his view of the role of the state in providing goods and services to the citizens with an argument that would be convincing to the community of American economists in the middle of the twentieth century. Musgrave’s definition highlights his life-long concern for a comprehensive, realistic and useful normative theory of the public sector.

Keywords: Richard A. Musgrave, Paul A. Samuelson, social goods, public goods, non-rivalry, non-exclusion, free riding

JEL Classification: H41, B29, B31

Suggested Citation

Desmarais-Tremblay, Maxime, Musgrave, Samuelson, and the Crystallization of the Standard Rationale for Public Goods (June 29, 2016). History of Political Economy (Forthcoming), Available at SSRN:

Maxime Desmarais-Tremblay (Contact Author)

Goldsmiths, University of London ( email )

Lewisham Way
New Cross
London, SE14 6NW
United Kingdom

Centre Walras-Pareto, Université de Lausanne ( email )

Quartier Chambronne
Lausanne, Vaud CH-1015

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