E.D. thinks that market economics don’t apply to education. Chris disagrees, but thinks that market economics ultimately are about controlling people and inevitably creates – specifically in the realm of education – a form of corporatism. Chris also explains that this is why he is not a libertarian.
I. FREE MARKET ECONOMICS ARE NOT ABOUT CONTROLLING PEOPLE
I find these criticisms a bit off. First, Chris’ argument against the field of economics as a form of study is almost identical to some of the arguments made by the undeniably mainstream libertarian Will Wilkinson against the practice of economics as a useful policy tool. While I don’t pretend to speak for John, I think most advocates of free market economics would actually agree with this critique – while economics may be useful at creating the most “efficient” outcome for achieving a particular result, they are not useful as a tool for determining which results are better or worse or are more worth pursuing.
But to me that doesn’t mean that basic economics is worthless, nor does it have anything to do with understanding markets. It just means that the democratic value of any sort of science as a policy tool is desperately limited: it can, at least theoretically, give us a path for achieving solutions; what it emphatically cannot do is tell us what is and is not a problem, nor what would constitute an acceptable solution, and it definitely cannot evaluate whether solving the problem is more valuable than the inevitable collateral consequences.
That said, I’m not sure why the idea that the laws of economics apply to education should be a “chilling concept” to Chris. Those laws apply to just about any situation involving a transaction of goods or services, whether regulated or not, provided privately or publicly. Indeed, this is a version of one of the more common (and oft-annoying) refrains of libertarians critiquing various arguments in favor of some government policy or another – you cannot alter the immutable laws of economics, yet this is precisely what central planners and their supporting economists seek to do.*
The part of Chris’ critique that most confuses me is the idea that free market economics is a means of controlling people, when the principles underlying them are precisely that people ought not be controlled. A truly and completely free market, after all, is by definition a state of anarchy in which no one is controlled by anything other than natural limitations (e.g., geography). In this sense, the “free market” is simply the theoretical state of nature – humans at their most, well, human. The question thus isn’t “when should free market principles be implemented,” but “when is coercion justified, and to what extent”?
The answer, I would posit, is or at least ought to be: when the relevant social/political unit, by some sort of majority or supermajority, agrees upon both the existence of a problem and that the collateral consequences of a proposed solution to said problem are likely acceptable (i.e., the problem is a high enough priority to warrant the collateral consequences of a given solution). If there is no widespread agreement, there is no solution appropriate to implement.
II. VOUCHERS/TAX CREDITS RETURN CONTROL OF EDUCATION TO PARENTS AND AWAY FROM “BIG BUSINESS”
Turning to the issue of education and vouchers that is the real subject of this discussion, there is clearly agreement that some sort of education requirement provides a public good warranting coercion and collective action of some sort (i.e., there is agreement on the existence of a problem). There is also broad agreement that no matter what the collateral consequences, some degree of taxation is justified and that it is important that everyone – but especially the poor – have access to an education that meets at least some minimal standards.
So far, so good, right? But this is where things fall apart. Outside of these vague notions, there is relatively little agreement. Don’t get me wrong – there is agreement that our children, on average, do not perform well enough on math, reading, etc. and that better performance in those subjects is a good thing. But there’s almost never any discussion as to what constitutes “well enough,” nor is there much discussion as to whether the benefits of raising quantifiable scores in those subjects is worth the non-quantifiable costs in terms of de-emphasis on other subjects (such as music and PE, as VH1 and ESPN like to remind me). Similarly, there is presumably a general agreement that children should learn “science” and “history”; there is not, however a general agreement – nor even much of a discussion – on what elements of “science” and “history” are worth learning.
These disagreements become more problematic as education becomes more centralized on both the federal and state levels (for instance, it’s tough to overemphasize the indirect but inappropriate influence of Texas and California educational politics on textbook content in other states). But that aside, these disagreements still often exist on a local level, yet poor parents have little choice but to send their children to schools that provide what they consider an inadequate education, often at an average per-pupil cost that is greater than the cost of the parochial school down the street that offers an education that the parent considers more adequate.
This to me is the great argument for vouchers and/or tax credits. It’s emphatically NOT that private schools objectively outperform public schools – a conclusion that is debatable at best and which undermines the notion that vouchers are about empowering parents; indeed, reliance on this argument likely would result in precisely the “government attempts to … engineer the perfect educational solution” that Chris rightly worries about. Quite the opposite, the best argument for vouchers is that there is no way to objectively quantify the value of a particular education and thus, on average, the best judge of whether an education is sufficiently valuable is going to be the parent herself.
The competition provided by vouchers/tax credits also provides valuable feedback to local schools as to what local parents actually value, rather than what some government entity says they should value.
But most importantly, what vouchers do is take things back a step in the recognition that our existing education system doesn’t merely provide a base level of education, but instead ensures a one-size-fits-all approach where there is little agreement or even discussion as to which size-fits-all. In the comments to E.D.’s post, John Schwenkler made the analogy between vouchers and food stamps. I’d take this analogy a step further, though, and say that our existing system is the equivalent of replacing food stamps with a system where food stamp recipients d0n’t even get to go to the grocery store at all and just get a couple government-provided meals every day that they have to eat, like it or not….and everyone who can’t afford to shop at Whole Foods is on food stamps.
This leaves Chris’ concern that vouchers would further entrench the power of big business over government. I’m skeptical of this claim, partly because I think he is underestimating the extent to which that influence already exists in the education system, but also because vouchers will act primarily to lower the costs of entry into the private school market, which is an act that ordinarily means more competitors (and thus less potential influence for the biggest players). Currently the bulk of private schools that are remotely affordable are Catholic schools, because the Catholic Church is one of the few players capable of overcoming the fact that public schools are at least nominally “free,” a fact that is equivalent to an artificially high entry cost; in a voucher system, many more organizations, both for-profit and non-profit, religious and secular, would be able to enter the market without the financial backing of a rather large institution.
*There are obvious problems with this refrain. Most of all, unless it is in the context of an anarchist/mutualist critique, it ignores collective action problems and effectively assumes the existence of a Coasian world with no transaction costs. Thus, the refrain often ignores that it’s possible for a society to agree on a goal yet be unable to achieve it through basic market principles. So far as I can tell, the mutualist/anarchist is fully aware that these two problems mean a society that lacks many modern conveniences, but is ok with that so long as it means an absence of coercion.