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I do not believe that it is possible to be both a paternalist (libertarian or otherwise) and also be a strong advocate of government schooling.

The argument that Thaler and Sunstein make in their book Nudge is that many individuals make bad decisions when left to their own devices because they are short-sighted, ill-informed, undisciplined, or simply irrational. According to the paternalists, government can make people better off by altering the choice set you face in one form or another. Some of this takes the form of outright prohibitions (e.g. trans-fats are illegal in NYC), changes in presentation and default strategies (e.g. employers automatically signing you up for a retirement plan), etc.

Is it possible to hold this paternalistic view and still believe that public schools are doing their job? After all, the government and the teachers’ unions hold students captive for about 13 years (and sometimes longer) and in all of that time, not only do our kids come out unable to reason, write well, think critically, they are also completely unprepared to make decisions as adults? Isn’t much of the soft-paternalism built upon education and making people change how they frame decisions? Ought not all of this wonderful stuff be taught to them in schools? And if it is already being taught to them in schools, what does this say about the desirability of continuing to do it if people are still irrational when they get out? And if it is already being taught to them in schools, what does this say about the ability for students in public schools to learn other material – which is presumably not more important than the things paternalists wish to regulate? And if it is already being taught to them in schools, perhaps it is taking much needed time away from mastering the fundamentals?

In any case, when 90% of the population attends a government school, it is simply not plausible to argue that the government does not have ample opportunity to rationalize the irrational masses. Furthermore, it is simply laughable to then argue that after having 90% of the population for 13 years of their lives, that government ought to remain involved after that. If you believe deeply in the paternalistic role for government, then ought you not support the destatification of education? Or if you believe deeply in the effectiveness of government schools, ought you be indifferent to the dismantling of paternalistic governmental initiatives?

My point of course is that education is not about education, nor is nudging about nudging.

3 Responses to “Challenge for the Nudgers”

  1. Harry says:

    I have in my library many textbooks, some I used, but also some used by relatives eighty years ago. The algebra and calculus books cover the same subject, but I have to admit the ones I used were better written, using an approach that used the experience of the battle scars suffered by several generations of math teachers.

    My biology and chemistry books are better than anything in 1930, although the chemistry book is still useful. The periodic table has not changed, and my daughter’s college textbook is not dramatically different.

    I have several grammar books. The Elements of Style remains prominent. Then there are many old books on spelling and vocabulary.

    My point is that my parents and other relatives got educated just as well, and perhaps better than my generation did from grades one through twelve, and it has been a downhill slide ever since.

    Hardly any kid today has any notion of American history, yet it would be commonplace for a kid in 1933 to be able to recite the presidents all the way backwards from Franklin Rooseveldt to George Washington, and put Chester A. Arthur in the right place. I am sure I could not do that, but my wife’s father can.

    So much harm has been done by progressive educationists and Dewey.

    The Amish have their own schools, and they teach enough to be able to read the Bible (in German and English) and enough math to make a successful deal for buying thirty Holsteins. If our government-run schools would get everyone to that level of competence, we could count the effort a success, much better than we have now.

  2. Bradley Calder says:

    I think you maybe mis-characterizing Sunstein’s and Thaler’s position. No where in their book do they advocate for prohibitions on anything, rather they believe that there should be sound “default” options when a choice needs to be made. The question of whether government should be involved with schooling is entire different than the question of whether government should set the default choice to entering a charter school lottery rather than the default of remaining in ones normal school.

    I see no reason why helpful defaults (where the cost of opting out is free) should be discouraged as opposed to favoring random defaults which would be the complete libertarian strategy (obviously the 100% libertarian strategy would be no government involvement at all, but assuming this is not the world we live in currently).

    Ultimately, I see nothing wrong with setting some reasonable defaults as opposed to random defaults. I’m curious if you disagree with this statement?
    *I am assuming in this question that there must be a default, and that government involvement, at least for the time being, is present.

  3. wintercow20 says:

    I STRONGLY disagree with your position for several reasons. First and most important is that someone in government must be empowered to select the default choice, or even what is in the choice set. Bootleggers and Baptists reign here, and I am not anywhere near convinced that nudgers have the right incentives and knowledge to do this.

    Second, why is this an appropriate extension of government power? It is far from the bounds of what is in the constitution.

    Third, my point in this post was that what the heck do we have public education for if not to overcome these problems? If the state religioinists cannot get it right afer 12 years of indoctrination, how can we expect them to get it right after this?

    Fourth, as much as the left scorns this argument, the slippery slope here is rather slippery – I will write more about this in the future.

    And fifth, and this is my strongest claim, is that Sunstein and Thaler and the nudgers are playing a trick on you. They write as if the only options are: the government pick a default choice or we leave individuals totally alone. But that is far from true. If you view a role for government, why can their role not be resigned to “forcing you to make a choice?” In some cases this is not possible, but certainly it is for their strongest held positions such as the default options for a retirement account at work. Why do they get to pick the default rather than say, force the employer to not issue your check if you do not choose a fund? I don’t even want the government recommending a particular default – there is a long and sordid record of them getting it wrong. One of my favorite stories is looking at the USDA’s recommended daily allowances of certain foods. As recently as 50 years ago they were recommending servings of eggs that would be viewed as very unhealthy today. But I am sure that is just one small isolated mistake, right?

    I have more to say, and you can search through my previous posts on the topic for a smattering. In short, this is a totally inappropriate role for government, regardless of whether the outcomes could in fact be improved. This is a utilitarian step on the road to serfdom, and one I will not abide by.

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