Public Choice

, Volume 176, Issue 3–4, pp 479–506 | Cite as

The lightship in economics

  • Rosolino A. CandelaEmail author
  • Vincent J. Geloso


What role does government play in the provision of public goods? Economists have used the lighthouse as an empirical example to illustrate the extent to which the private provision of public goods is possible. This inquiry, however, has neglected the private provision of lightships. We investigate the private operation of the world’s first modern lightship, established in 1731 on the banks of the Thames estuary going in and out of London. First, we show that the Nore lightship was able to operate profitably and without government enforcement in the collection of payments for lighting services. Second, we show how private efforts to build lightships were crowded out by Trinity House, the public authority responsible for establishing and maintaining lighthouses in England and Wales. By including lightships into the broader lighthouse market, we argue that the provision of lighting services exemplifies not a market failure, but a government failure.


Government failure Lighthouse Lightship Market failure Public goods 

JEL Classification

D72 H40 P48 



The authors wish to acknowledge the helpful comments of Elodie Bertrand, Peter Boettke, Laurent Carnis, Tyler Cowen, Christopher Coyne, Daniel D’Amico, Alexandra Foucher, Anton Howes, Mark Koyama, Martín Krause, Erik Lindberg, Adam Martin, Ryan Murphy, Jamie Bologna Pavlik, Ennio Piano, Benjamin Powell, Alexander Salter, David Skarbek, Emily Skarbek, Judy Stephenson, Edward Stringham, Robert Whaples, Robert Wright, and Andrew Young. We also thank the seminar participants at the American Institute for Economic Research and the Free Market Institute at Texas Tech University, where earlier drafts of this paper were presented. Special thanks go to the archivists at the British Library and the Trinity House Corporation. We also extend a special thanks to William Shughart and Peter Leeson for their valuable feedback and suggestions. Any remaining errors are entirely our own.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Political Theory ProjectBrown UniversityProvidenceUSA
  2. 2.Department of EconomicsBates CollegeLewistonUSA

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