19 January 2007

Objectivist: Against Public Education

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
17 January 2007

There is an odd feature of our country, which is that we have largely socialized K-12 education, that is, the government owns and runs most of the schools. This is odd for a couple of reasons. One reason it's odd is that few citizens would like to socialize other parts of the economy. Most people would be disgusted at the idea the idea of Washington, Albany, or local towns owning and running supermarkets. The same citizens would get nauseated at the idea of these governments owning and giving out houses, rather than allowing them to be freely bought or sold. And who doesn't flinch at the idea of the government controlling the movie industry? Imagine modern-day censors like Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and religious politicians like former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) choosing our movies. Goodbye HBO. A second reason it's odd is that education involves the teaching of ideas and it's hard to believe anyone wants the government deciding what ideas should be recognized and supported. Consider some of the arguments for socialized education.

The first argument is that if we didn't have public education, either the poor or children in general wouldn't get educated. The help-the-poor argument is unconvincing because in other areas the government subsidizes the poor by giving them money to purchase goods in the free market. Consider, for example, food stamps and housing subsidies. The notion that children from middle-class and rich families won't get educated unless taxpayers foot the bill takes a dim view of parents. In any case, the government could always require middle-class and rich parents to send their children to school just as they require them to feed and house their children without taking over these tasks.

It's sometimes argued that government schools are more efficient. For example, it might be argued that having an educated populace is a public good similar to national defense, roads, and clean air. Public goods are things that benefit the population, but can't be supported by the free market because it's too expensive to exclude individuals who don't pay their fair share. For example, we can't provide clean air only to those families willing to pay for it. Public goods also usually involve things in which one person's consumption of the good (for example, breathing fresh air) doesn't leave noticeably less for others.

Public education, however, isn't a public good. That is, collecting money from parents who want their children educated is not only feasible, it's standard operating procedure in private schools and in almost all colleges and universities. In addition, one person's consumption of education does leave less for others. If one child occupies a spot in the classroom of a gifted teacher, she leaves one less spot for other children.

The related suggestion that government schools are efficient is so ridiculous that even Paris Hilton's toy Chihuahua would gag upon hearing it. The U.S. spends more than our peer countries and consistently gets worse results. New York in particular spends money on education as if it has a jihad against taxpayers. Even if government schools were not historical monuments to wasteful inefficiency, it's still not clear why citizens should be forced to support them. In a free country, citizens should not be yoked to the goal of efficiency, equality, or any other collective goal. In part, this idea explains our revulsion over the past collectivization of industry and agriculture in China and the Soviet Union.

A third argument is that public education achieves some collectivist goal like equalizing children, having informed citizens, or instilling a sense of community. Given the caliber of education in the inner city, the suggestion that public education makes us more equal is laughable. Given the poor job that public schools do in teaching children about American history and contemporary politics, it is hard to see how the informed-citizen argument is supposed to work. In any case, private schools (for example, Catholic schools) can and do instill these same values. Even if so many public schools weren't a disgrace to God and man, one might wonder how watching other citizens be forced to pay for their education instills in students a sense of equality and community rather than an appreciation of the beauty of coerced servitude to the masses.

A fourth argument is that we have democratically chosen to socialize K-12 education and are thus bound to follow the will of the majority. However, the issue is what the majority should support. One doesn't answer this by reporting on what they do support. On a side note, when it comes to deporting illegal aliens, banning abortion, and outlawing homosexual sodomy, the public-education crowd somehow loses its enthusiasm for majority preference. Nor should we be worried about a Constitutional difference between the above activities and public schools. It's clear that the Constitution, at least as originally written, didn't allow the federal government to pay for education.

Public education uses the jackboot of the state to force some taxpayers to pay for others' children. It's a gross imposition on liberty and inefficient to boot.


The Objectivist said...

Dear C:
I'm wondering how you respond to the plight of children in inner city public schools.

Let me concede for the purposes of argument that the Democratic Party is the better one and that unions are great.

Still, the fact remains that there is virtually chance that a Democratic candidate will emphasize serious school reform given the power of the NEA and AFT in the primaries. So are you prepared to sacrifice the education of inner city children for another generation? If not, then how can you support public schools or at least oppose vouchers?

vane said...

"Public education, however, isn't a public good." This is not explained at all.
My opinion is that:
"However, education is a public good and public responsibility and should be accessible to all and free".

The Objectivist said...

Dear Vane:
I'm curious as to how you are using the word "public good." Do you see it as characterized by non-excludability (inability to exclude individual consumers) and non-rivalrous usage (one person's consumption does not significantly reduce the amount of good available for another)?

The Objectivist said...

It's is sometimes argued that persons opposed to public schools shouldn't work for them. Here is my response.

As you point out, this at most shows that I’m inconsistent, not that my argument isn’t sound. However, it doesn’t even show the former. First, one can receive benefits from an institution that he opposes if he is forced to contribute to it. I think social security is a horrible institution. But given that I’ve been forced to pay for it, I don’t see any moral problems with my collecting the benefits. The same applies to the jobs and educational positions at state institutions.

For example, is it your view that someone who opposed Soviet control or ownership of the movie industry shouldn’t have watched any of the movies it produced?

Second, if the government pretty much occupies the field and leaves little jobs in the private sector, there is another reason for libertarians to take jobs with the public sector. In a more extreme job, if the Soviet Union socializes the auto industry, it is permissible for libertarian auto engineers to take jobs with the public sector since it’s the only place they can find a job. The states colleges have in the U.S. displaced many of the positions that would otherwise be hired by the private sector.

For example, do you think the auto engineer is morally bound not to take a job with state-owned auto companies?

The Objectivist said...


This is false. We subsidize the food of the poor, but they still shop where I shop (Wal-Mart and Martin’s). I just don’t understand this point.

Also, by subsidizing them, we would at least have a transparent account of how many tax dollars a family is getting and how pricey this type of welfare is. For example, we would know how much aid was being given to a family who got $20,000 to educate their two children and a $10,000 housing subsidy each year. I suspect that like me, you like transparency.

The Objectivist said...


Name me one area of the economy that doesn’t involve a natural monopoly (e.g., roads) or national security (e.g., the military), where the government ownership of an industry outperformed privately owned competitors. I doubt you can. The latter tends to produce the same product for a lower price or a better product for a higher price. This is no surprise. The private sector has crushed the public sector whenever they have competed, which is why socialist economies around the world have moved to capitalism or are paying an enormous price.

The Objectivist said...


This is an odd argument. Consider this claim.

6. If someone has benefited from an institution, then he has a duty to support it.

This is false since it would entail that Michael Corleone (from Godfather) would have a duty to support the mafia. Perhaps then you want assert the following.

7. If someone benefited from a just institution, then he has a duty to support it.

This begs the question, since what is at issue is whether public education is just or an unconscionable power grab. In addition, to this would provide a duty to support very inefficient institutions for which much better ones are needed. What we need then is something like the following.

8. If someone benefited from a just institution and one that is more efficient than alternative institutions, then he has a duty to support it.

Here the begging-the-question problem becomes clear. It’s even worse since most of us were forced to go to public school, we didn’t even willingly accept the benefit. Since 8 doesn’t have this condition in the antecedent, even it is false.

The Objectivist said...


This is true, but Catholic laypersons subsidize this by choice and have better results than public schools, and on my understanding of the studies, even when we control for demographic factors. However, to be fair, I haven’t read the studies, just the summaries of them by others.

I don’t see why parents shouldn’t be asked to pick up the costs of their own children’s education. After all, they chose to have them and in addition, their children will capture most of the benefits of the education. For example, persons with college degrees make more than $1 million over their lifetime than those without one. Why should taxpayers pay to give a legal adult a $1 million dollar asset? Professionals make a few million more than persons without a college degree. I’m really at a loss as to why this asset should be paid by taxpayers.

In the case of public education, some persons are forced to support others and this level of support is very burdensome (e.g., consider the level of school taxes and state taxes that go to schools). This is a significant infringement on liberty for persons to spend money how they want. We wouldn’t want to have to spend as much money to give large houses, vacations, or fancy cars to middle class and rich taxpayers.

The Objectivist said...


This is an odd claim given that these disciplines are a mainstay in plenty of private colleges such as the Ivy League, University of Chicago, Stanford, etc. You might respond that these are the elite colleges and hence not a good reflection of what the rest of the market would do. Most Catholic colleges, even mediocre ones, require 2-3 philosophy classes and other colleges cater to the desire for a great-books education (e.g., St. John’s in Maryland).

Even if this wasn’t the case, I’m not sure I see the value of people getting degrees in agriculture, criminal justice (police officers), and theater design having one or two classes in philosophy as opposed to none. This strikes me as a luxury whose cost might outweigh the benefits they produce. I kind of like the English model of college whereby persons graduate in 3 years and focus on their major. This puts the onus on high schools to teach what they should and cuts down on the time and costs of college. However, I might be wrong. I suspect the market would be much better as determining whether the benefits of the extra costs in philosophy, communications, literature, etc. are worth the benefits than would myself, boards of trustees, or turf-building faculty committees.

The Constructivist said...

O, what you're proposing is a pretend privatization. If you trust markets so damn much, why don't you talk about getting the state completely out of the education business (including the massive funding for private colleges and universities at the state and federal level), removing all educational institutions' tax-exempt status, and letting the most profitable ones end up monopolizing the playing field for a time until they bust and survivors emerge to pick up the pieces? The history of markets is a history of at best "creative destruction," booms and busts, inherently unstable equilibria--do you really want to trust your kids' education to such a shaky mechanism for distributing a key service like education? Don't 90% of new businesses fail? What happens to the kids in a private school when it goes under in March?

Also, why are you more sanguine about private indoctrination than public indoctrination? Take your ideas to the extreme your rhetoric suggests they should be taken, and we'd be back in the era of company towns. You have the luxury of just shopping at Wal-Mart, but what if you worked for their education division and your kids were educated in their worker trainer, I mean, elementary ed division? Given the way they treat their workers, I don't think you'd have much freedom to cross the company line. Sure, you could choose Target or Costco, but what kind of choice is that? Libertarians tend to look at corporations from the perspective of the consumer rather than the worker--why is that?

Have you read Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash? Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower? Marge Piercy's He, She, and It? They all pursue possible implications of wholesale embrace of capitalist libertarianism, ones you ignore in your utopianism.

OK, steam blown off. On a more serious note, the reason private schools and colleges/universities have been so successful is that they've used their tax-exempt status and long history of cultivating alumni donations (and the old boys network they created that made such donations possible) to build huge endowments. Public schools and colleges/universities started later and never got very serious about the endowment-building until quite recently. As I argued with you before, if we accept your logic, we need to find ways to better fund public schools and build their endowments so they might eventually rely less on tax dollars and more on donations, market and interest gains, and tuition. Natural competition with private schools will gradually improve public schools. If private schools are so great, we just need more of them, right? The college/university system you hold up as a model is just such a product of the very public-private competition you think we should get rid of in favor of an entirely untested and unstable private system, one that has never shown an interest or capacity in educating anyone other than children of the elite. Why?

Now, nations that have treated their public school systems as part of their national security apparatus have their own problems--ones I suspect more "loyal conservative" types will start to find increasingly dealable-with as the Republican Party is forced to make a choice for or against perpetual resource wars--so saying we should consider education as part of a nation's security is a move liberals may want to rethink.

I like the social insurance model, myself--spreading the risks of (post?)modern life among as many as possible, so the burdens of the costs of that life fall as lightly as possible on any single individual or family. This is a different conception of the relation between markets and societies than yours and I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.

Rant over.

The Constructivist said...

Oh, and O, given your views on race and IQ, what makes you think vouchers would be any better solution for the supposedly hopeless inner city kids than real reform of public schools?

In a less snarky mode, may I suggest you check out this report on the future of learning communities? There are lots of plans out there for "rethinking schools" that don't involve treating the public school system as a "corporation" to be raided, gutted, merged, split, etc.? I love the '80s as much as the next guy, but didn't Futurama put the stake in the heart of the kind of capitalism you're nostalgic for?

The Constructivist said...

O, did you see your man Murray's latest? Here's one discussion of his arguments about who college ought to be for and what ought to be its goals.

The Constructivist said...

Also, look back at my vouchers piece--I actually proposed a voucher plan there that I think would have a huge impact on all schools, including inner city schools, by using vouchers to extend pre-school choice and access and quality. Or it would prove that vouchers don't work. Either way, I think it's worth doing. Do you?

The Constructivist said...

BusinessWeek on the "dangerous wealth of the Ivy League":