We should ask whether government needs to play a role in any of this. After all, individuals have an incentive to invest in their own education. Many people find it worthwhile to pay for undergraduate or graduate degrees because they know they will get better, higher paying jobs afterward. Similarly, firms have a lot of incentive to carry out R&D because a successful invention will allow them to earn higher profits. There is no doubt that these private incentives play a big role in encouraging the advancement of knowledge. Still, most economists agree that private incentives are not sufficient. Particularly in poor countries, people may not be able to afford to pay for their own education or be able to borrow for that purpose, even if it would eventually pay off for them to do so. Because knowledge is nonrival and frequently nonexcludable, not all the benefits from R&D flow to the firms that make the investment. For example, suppose a firm comes up with some new software. Other firms may be able to imitate the idea and capture some of the benefits of the invention. (Although the United States and other countries have patent and copyright laws to help ensure that people and firms can enjoy the benefits of their own inventions, such laws are imperfect, and firms sometimes find that their ideas are copied or stolen.) Private markets will do a poor job of providing nonrival and nonexcludable goods, so there is a potential role for the government. Similar arguments apply to much social infrastructure. The provision of roads is a classic function of government because they are again (most of the time, at least) nonrival and nonexcludable. And the establishment of a reliable legal system is one of the most basic functions of government.
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