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Perhaps the most common justification for government support of schooling is that when individuals and families make choices about how much schooling (not education mind you) to acquire, they think only of the benefits to them of going and ignore the possible spillover benefits that accrue to society.

This argument is specious for lots of reasons. Two that I’ve covered earlier are: (1) it is highly implausible that any significant share of people do not recognize the immense economic benefits from becoming better educated in these days, particularly when there is abundant evidence that families were conscious of this as much as two hundred years ago; (2) while going to school surely provides benefits for others in terms of people being better able to communicate and perhaps more civilized, is it not possible that education produces negative spillovers as well. If you take Bob Frank seriously, if we view lots of the world as status conscious, then when you attend a better school or acquire more schooling, you are placing me at a disadvantage. This is the justification Frank uses for Progressive taxation on the rich – so why can we not also apply it to other goods? Further, when some individuals attend school, they impose real costs on other people. Perhaps you learn to become a better criminal – instead of being a petty thief, you cannot commit cyber-crime and other nasty crimes. Not only that, given that the school system is controlled by the teachers’ unions and government-educational complex, some of what children are forced to learn (and what I am forced to pay for) is offensive and downright wrong. How come this never enters the cost side of the ledger.

But the point of this post is that those making externalities arguments in favor of government support for schooling fail to recognize one possibility. And what is this possibility? It is that individuals and families overestimate the gains to be had from schooling – so that leaving the education market to market forces alone will lead to too much education being consumed by actors. After all – nary a billboard goes by or television program or public service announcement that does not espouse the virtues of schooling. I’ve never met a single person – rich or poor – that does not think more schooling is a great idea. If government religionists want to make the case for taxing all kinds of other goods because we foolishly overconsume them, then how come education is not also considered in that bundle? I teach a a top 40 research university, and even among that highly regarded group of students, I would venture to say that a good 15% of them not only do not belong here, but they would be much better served by not being in college at all. Of course, that is one observation – but I’ve seen it everywhere I’ve been.

7 Responses to “The Case Against Public Schooling: A Continuing Series”

  1. jb says:

    FYI, there is a website for everything…

    Interesting info here regarding the history of compulsory public education, I have read up on it quite a bit since my own kids first encountered indoctrination. But its roots, essentially, stem from religious (anti-Catholic) bigotry here in Massachusetts.

    Can you imagine anything more ILLIBERAL than forcing us to put our 5 year olds on a yellow bus every day, to go into a building largely off limits to anyone but faculty, so that they can be “educated” — by government employees? Even if one can make the (difficult) case for government FINANCING of education (net positive externalities, or whatever) it is incomprehensible to me that so many of us blandly accept that schools must also be publicly OPERATED.

  2. Charles says:

    I like this one wintercow, good work.

  3. Charles says:

    …also, maybe 5% of those 15% that should not be there, simply shouldn’t be there YET. I’ve come to believe that society should stop creating this illusion that university is something students should enter into as soon as they are elligible, something my own highschool is indeed guilty of doing. Life is not a commodity, it is not a mass produced product with standardized components, everyones life has it’s own dependant and independant variables. And keeping with the whole mass production bit, how can you safely put up a new car for sale if the brake cables have not been installed yet?

  4. Speedmaster says:

    >> “I would venture to say that a good 15% of them not only do not belong here”

    And I wonder how many of those 15% are having part or all of their VERY expensive education (forcefully) subsidized by others?

  5. jb says:

    Wintercow your estimate is far to generous. Charles Murray (of Bell Curve fame) figures only about 20% of undergrads BELONG in college (see his book Real Education).

  6. scott says:

    I can be the person who thinks more schooling is a bad idea. I learned more having freedom to do whatever I wanted with my time over summer vacation than throughout the school year. I think its a crime that the government is considering extending the school year

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