The Economic Pursuit of Quality in a
Chapters One through Three have established the aesthetic, qualitative, and subjective nature of the goods and services that our private businesses produce and that we as consumers pursue in the commercial economy. This certainly suggests that the pursuit of quality can be an important economic activity. This activity, in fact, is what drives the commercial world we so often view as synonymous with the economy.
But simply because some economic activity involves the pursuit of quality does not establish that all pursuits of quality are economic in nature. In particular, many might doubt that the pursuit of, say, environmental quality, an attractive neighborhood, or a rich and diverse culture is economic. In fact, such pursuits, however lofty, may well be seen as antieconomic, in the sense that they can be pursued only at some cost to the economy in the form of reduced profits, productivity, and employment.
This chapter focuses on the pursuit of quality outside the market or commercial economy. It seeks to understand what it is that leads us to label as economic the pursuit of aesthetic goals when people buy stereos, restaurant meals, and concert tickets, but to doubt the economic character of people's pursuits of clean air, beautiful vistas, and stable communities. Both sets of pursuits are subjective. Quality is the dominant goal, and the judgments involved are passionately disputable, but this does not prevent the commercial economy from encompassing the one set just as it may neglect the other.
This chapter explores that paradox. It begins by asking what it is about environmental goods that makes them "noncommercial." It goes on to establish that environmental goods are nonetheless economic in character. We then turn to the variety of techniques economists have developed to establish and even measure the economic value of environmental goods.