Friday, November 02, 2007

What Makes Education Special?

Megan McArdle has been doing yeoman’s service lately in defending school vouchers. I particularly liked this passage:
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?


Gil said...

Great question.

I've always been interested in why liberals are so passionately in favor of this illiberal notion: That the state should be in a position to indoctrinate a large percentage of the young.

I can understand why it might sound attractive, if you imagine that it's your idea of education that will be imposed on most people.

But, why would one be so confident that that will be the case?

Ari said...

And if I’m right that it’s the latter, then why are voucher opponents so fixated on preserving the public school system?

I can think of a few reasons:

1. Because it's seen as a labor issue -- specifically, protecting virtually-permanent employment for unionized public school teachers.

2. Anti-market bias: Many people are repulsed by the idea of businessmen "making money off of students," and see it as a zero-sum transaction. Also, education is "too important" to be commoditized, bought and sold like porkbellies or barrels of oil. Reducing education to "mere dollars and cents" is seen as vulgar.

3. Paternalism: People don't want students just to get an education -- they want them to get a particular kind of education. More choice is a bad thing if people make the "wrong choices," like preferring Fox News and talk radio to PBS and NPR. If redneck parents get school choice, they might send their kids to Billy-Bob's Discount Skool of Creationism and NASCAR.

4. Status quo bias (can you tell I liked Bryan Caplan's book?): people imagine that private schools in a voucher system would be just like private schools in the current system -- i.e., schools only for the wealthy elite or the maniacally religious. They can't imagine the possibility of good-quality, affordable private schools for the masses. Private schools now are like Neiman Marcus and Saks ... and people just can't imagine that there could also be a Target or Wal-Mart of education, providing a good product at a low price.


Anonymous said...

This goes double for Health Care

Anonymous said...

they want them to get a particular kind of education

In the Soviet Union, where most members of my family, and of their communities here, were raised, it was called 'indoctrination'.

As to the liberal aversion to the grubby dollars involved in a free market system, I can introduce them to several educators who founded and still run successful private schools. They'll confirm that doing so is a never-ending labor of love from which no one gets rich. Think that'll allay the so-called fears?

Anonymous said...

"In the Soviet Union, where most members of my family, and of their communities here, were raised, it was called 'indoctrination'."

And how were they harmed by the 'indoctrination'? Maybe they were, but you didn't elaborate.

Graduates of Soviet universities were recognized worldwide in all fields, including economics. There were Soviet-educated professors teaching at a Loyola Marymount when I attended there in the early 90's.

I wonder what the new Russia is churning out academically speaking, and how has the educational system at all levels changed for the better or for the worse. I would like to know, and I'll have to look into it - now that you've piqued my curiosity.