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Paternalism and the public household. On the domestic origins of public economics


  • Maxime Desmarais-Tremblay

    (Centre Walras-Pareto - UNIL - Université de Lausanne = University of Lausanne, CES - Centre d'économie de la Sorbonne - UP1 - Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne - CNRS - Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique)


The ancient Greek conception of oikonomia is often dismissed as irrelevant for making sense of the contemporary economic world. In this paper, I emphasise a tread that runs through the history of economic thought connecting the oikos to modern public economics. By conceptualising the public economy as a public household, Richard A. Musgrave (1910-2007) set foot in a long tradition of analogy between the practically oriented household and the state. Despite continuous references to the domestic model by major economists throughout the centuries, the analogy has clashed with liberal values associated with the public sphere since the eighteenth century. Musgrave's conceptualization of public expenditures represents one episode of this continuing tension. His defence of merit goods, in particular, was rejected by many American economists in the 1960s because it was perceived as a paternalistic intervention by the state. I suggest that the accusation of paternalism should not come as a surprise once the ‘domestic' elements in Musgrave's conceptualisation of the public sector are highlighted. I develop three points of the analogy in Musgrave's public household (the communal basis, a central direction, and consumption to satisfy needs) which echo recurring patterns of thought about the state.

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  • Maxime Desmarais-Tremblay, 2017. "Paternalism and the public household. On the domestic origins of public economics," Post-Print halshs-01560189, HAL.
  • Handle: RePEc:hal:journl:halshs-01560189
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    12. Maxime Desmarais-Tremblay, 2014. "Normative and positive theories of public finance: contrasting Musgrave and Buchanan," Journal of Economic Methodology, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 21(3), pages 273-289, September.
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    18. Maxime Desmarais-Tremblay, 2017. "A genealogy of the concept of merit wants," The European Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 24(3), pages 409-440, May.
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    More about this item


    public household; paternalism; liberalism; merit wants; merit goods; ménage public; paternalisme; besoins méritoires; biens méritoites; Richard A. Musgrave;
    All these keywords.

    JEL classification:

    • H40 - Public Economics - - Publicly Provided Goods - - - General
    • B29 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - History of Economic Thought since 1925 - - - Other
    • B40 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - Economic Methodology - - - General

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