The Electric Commentary

Friday, May 19, 2006

Education, Television Sets, and Freeways.

When I think about whether a certain product should be left to the private sector v. the public sector, I usually think about TVs and freeways. TV's are products that are purchased by many individuals who benefit directly from owning the TV. Freeways, on the other hand, have many secondary beneficiaries, and are therefore subject to the freerider problem. The incentives to build things like freeways are spread among many disconnected parties, and all of them have an incentive to let the other parties do the work for them. As a consequence, nothing gets done. It's sort of a reverse "tragedy of the commons." (Note: I know some people who believe that the private sector would do a fine job with freeways too, but let's ignore them.)

In general, I think that most things should be left to the private sector, but if I believe that a certain product closely resembles a freeway, (national defense, certain infrastructure, sewers, etc.) I am more inclined to let the government have a role. The government still doesn't do a great job with many of these responsibilities, but the alternative is to not have these products and services at all.

We treat education as a freeway in this country, but I think it is clearly more like a television. Parents have an interest in purchasing a fine education for their kids, and so it seems that the best way to provide education would be in the free market.

This is the logical and philosophical argument for keeping the state out of schooling. What I never hear from those who are in favor of public education as it currently exists, such as Jay Bullock, is any logical or philosophical justification underlying their arguments. Jay is a champion debater, but he hits you with a thousand bb's, whereas I tend to hit with one giant missile. He'll drown you with information, little examples of public school successes or failures of privatization, but there is no underlying coherence to his arguments.

Which is not to say that they are bad arguments, of course. There may very well be some underlying reason to support public education, but no one is bragging about it.

I also want to be clear that I am not talking about government funded schools, but government run schools. When subjected to competition government schools seem to do fine, especially at the college level, and I would like to see our K-12 schools benefit from the same system.

Is there anyone out there that wants to see the format for public education applied to the broader market? Would we accept this system for our food production? Except for a few on the extreme left, I suspect that no one would endorse this system.

So, I would seriously like to know, why are schools more similar to freeways than TVs? What makes education so special as to require so much government oversight? If it is such a good system, why does the prospect of using it for other goods seem so unattractive?

4 Comments:

  • Is there anyone out there that wants to see the format for public education applied to the broader market?

    Yes. They are called communists.

    By Blogger Scott H, at 3:48 PM  

  • I respond.

    By Blogger Jay Bullock, at 11:07 PM  

  • "Parents have an interest in purchasing a fine education for their kids."

    What would you do about the children of parents who either don't care or aren't educated enough themselves to pick a school?

    By Blogger MDS, at 5:50 AM  

  • Isn't that still a problem with our current system? If apathetic or uneducated parents happen to get their kids into a good school now, isn't it pure luck? How would that change under my system? Instead of simply sending your kid to the closest school it would be a crapshoot, and if they wanted, they could still just send the kid to the closest school.

    The "big idea" for my plan is to raise the quality of schools everywhere, so that even the worst school (actually, the worst school that can stay in business, or marginal school) is better than the average school now, just as even the worst television set now is better than the medium television set of 20 years ago (or even ten years ago) and is about 1/4 the price. But I'll post a longer response to Jay later (maybe tomorrow, kind of busy today) that will cover such things.

    Bottom line: It's hard to account for the "worst parent" without physically forcing them to choose a good option, and I think that that is impossible.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 8:35 AM  

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