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

Desmarais-Tremblay, Maxime. 2017. Musgrave, Samuelson, and the Crystallization of the Standard Rationale for Public Goods. History of Political Economy, 49(1), pp. 59-92. ISSN 0018-2702 [Article]

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Abstract or Description

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 nonrival and nonexcludable—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 citizens with an argument that would be convincing to the community of US economists in the mid-twentieth century. Musgrave's definition highlights his lifelong concern for a comprehensive, realistic, and useful normative theory of the public sector.

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Identification Number (DOI):


Richard A. Musgrave, Paul A. Samuelson, social goods, public goods, nonrivalry, nonexclusion, free riding

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Institute of Management Studies


1 June 2016Accepted
1 March 2017Published

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Date Deposited:

30 Jul 2018 11:20

Last Modified:

21 May 2020 14:23

Peer Reviewed:

Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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