San Francisco Chaos Proves It: Law and Order Is a Public Good
4 min read
If a government stops enforcing the law, private businesses will not — and cannot — step in to fill the void.
A sidewalk filled with tents set up by the homeless in San Francisco, Calif., April 1, 2020. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

San Francisco is refusing to stop shoplifters, and it's driving businesses, such as Walgreens, out of the Bay Area. Instances of brazen stealing have circulated on Twitter and other social-media networks, leading some to wonder why Walgreens spends so much on security guards if they aren't going to stop theft. The disastrous outcomes in San Francisco shows what happens when sound economics meets bad public policy.


The traditional definition of a public good is something that is enjoyed by all without anyone's consumption infringing on someone else's use of it. National defense is the canonical example of a public good because everyone relies on the Army's protection, and the United States must defend the whole country. Public goods lead to a free-rider problem, though, where people shirk paying into the system because they will receive the benefits whether or not they contribute. This is why governments provide public goods.

However, we often think of public goods as, well, goods. Defense, roads, and environmental protection physically require tanks, concrete, or an EPA. But San Francisco shows why we need a more capacious definition of a "public good." Police officers and the justice system do more than simply arrest criminals; they create a social climate of order from which all citizens benefit. But because "order" is not a tangible product, people can misunderstand it as something that is individually enforced. This is a mistake.

It's not surprising that if a city decriminalizes shoplifting, there will be more shoplifters. However, it is important to be clear-eyed about the fact that if a city, county, or state stops enforcing the law, private businesses will not step in to…
Sean-Michael Pigeon
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