What I want to know from Ezra [Klein], and other liberal policy wonks ... is: why is education special? I have a model for what goods the government should buy versus what goods the government should actually provide directly; it has to do with geography, non-excludability, and transaction costs. But what is your model for saying that education is in a special class of goods that are rival and excludable, have ordinary levels of transaction costs, and yet nonetheless need to be provided directly by the government?Megan’s not arguing against government involvement here. She is conceding the need to make sure kids get educated, and if that requires some form of government involvement, so be it. The question she’s raising is, what makes education something that government should provide directly instead of subsidizing?
There are plenty of other goods and services that we want to make sure people have; food, shelter, and clothing come to mind. But with food, do we expect the government to run the farms and grocery stores? No. If some people can’t afford food, we subsidize them with welfare checks or (if we want to make sure they’re really buying food) with food stamps. Do we expect the government to provide housing? Well, we’ve had our experience with public housing, and it’s been almost uniformly recognized (even by liberals) as a disaster. So now advocates for the poor push for housing vouchers, which poor people can use to pay some or all of their rent. Do we expect the government to provide clothing? No. Again, we give poor people welfare checks, which they can use to buy clothes. If we were concerned that they were buying too much booze and too few shoes, we’d probably give them clothing coupons. (Maybe we already do.)
So, to repeat Megan, what makes education special? Education is not especially different from many other goods and services. It has no unusual features that make it unlikely to be provided by a private market in an efficient fashion. The only issue is that some people might not be able to afford it. So why not just give people money (in the form of vouchers, to make sure they spend it on education) and let them go to their provider of choice?
One more hack at this. If government had never gotten involved in education in the first place, and we were just now contemplating the creation of a government program, would we come up with anything like the status quo? Would we say, “Hey, why don’t we have government build and run a whole bunch of schools?” Or would we go the much more natural and obvious route of subsidizing kids so more of them could attend private schools? And if I’m right that it’s the latter, then why are voucher opponents so fixated on preserving the public school system?