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Seems to me to actually imply precisely the opposite. You read that correctly. If one wishes to argue that education is a public good, then I think the correct conclusion using the standard textbook tools of economics (that I often disagree with) brings us to recognize that government schooling does NOT follow.

How can I argue this?


Well, first one must understand what economists mean by the term, “public” good. It says NOTHING at all about who provides the good and instead deals exclusively with the characteristics of the good. And these characteristics are function of the particular legal and technological regime the good may exist in. What are those characteristics? Most important is that it is hard to prevent non-payers from enjoying the good. If, for example, I blast out a pleasant radio signal from my window because a passerby pays me to do so, how can I ensure that only he hears it and that others who have not paid do not hear it? It’s nearly impossible. And this is because the technology until recently has been unavailable for me to beam an audio signal only to him. But remember too that even if such technology did not exist I would not be doomed in different legal environments. Should I be permitted to cordon off all of the land and air that my radio waves might reasonably hit, and could prevent people from wandering into that space, then the technology problem would not be a problem – I could prevent non-payers from ever getting the chance to free-ride in the first place. The upshot of all of this is that of course public and government are in no way related, despite popular intuition that suggests otherwise. 

Which is to say that “attending school” has virtually NO public goods character whatsoever. I can easily station someone at the door of the school to prevent non-payers from coming in. And it would be hard to learn much by hanging outside the window of a classroom. What we MUST appeal to therefore is that some other aspect of schooling aside from attendance perhaps has “public” qualities. Without delving too deeply into the education pool, generally these things are some of the outcomes of schooling (and not all of them of course – many of the outcomes redound only to the users of schooling and some of the outcomes impact third parties negatively). And what are some of these? When I get more educated, I am easier to communicate with and do business with – and this confers benefits on others for which they do not pay. When I get more educated, I presumably become a better voter and more civic minded, and this benefit is not paid for by the other people I benefit. When I get more educated, I supposedly commit less crime.

And from this observation, educrat enthusiasts and government enthusiasts immediately jump to the incredible assumption that not only are subsidies for schooling justified, but that governments should provide them. We’ve explored at length in old posts the tenuousness of such arguments, so I want to pursue a different angle here. Suppose we agree that identifying possible positive spillovers justifies public policies to promote them, does it follow that “government makes everyone go to school for free” is among the best policy choices? Let’s think of an admittedly absurd analogy. Suppose a body of research demonstrates that viewing pretty daffodils makes people less susceptible to malaria. Does it follow that the government should build daffodil gardens all over the country?

No. And it should be obvious why, even if you are a government enthusiast.

The right question is, assuming reducing malaria is a goal, is how can public policy best promote the reduction of malaria. And government creating daffodil gardens is a very clear direct regulatory input standard. We know these to be nearly universally poor ways to get an outcome as compared to promoting output standards or providing incentives to have malaria solved. For example, an input standard for cleaning the air might be forcing all power plants to purchase emissions eating dragons no matter how they decide to produce power. This will require that all plants do the same thing – and force them to forego potentially cheaper ways to reduce emissions, which clearly differ from plant to plant and might include changing fuels, shutting down and so on. Well, if the goal of “society” is to get less crime, it is NOT AT ALL clear that “give everyone free education run by the government” is remotely a good way to do it, should we even agree that governments should do it. In other words, government schooling is the ultimate input standard. It is the educational equivalent of forcing all of us to purchase pollution eating dragons to solve our air quality problem. It is the educational equivalent of forcing all users of water to stop showering should we be faced with a water shortage. It is the educational equivalent of telling all people to wear warmer clothes should the temperature outside drop. And we know why those solutions don’t fly in these situations. How come we are so blind to the same problem with the educational input standard.

The ONLY thing guaranteed by mandating free government education is … students going to school (and that’s a stretch too). That is one among MANY possible ways for people to become more literate, more numerate, more civic minded, less prone to committing crime, and there is no reason to believe that mandating people go to a bureaucratic and politicized place for 13 years of their life is a reasonably good way to make you not steal from me. So, public policy makers who truly had “the public interest” in mind would never imagine a world of universal government school. Instead, they would craft policies aimed at improving the outcomes they cared about, and allow millions of households to choose the best means to “prevent crime” and “be more civic minded.” After all, I’ve seen the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts in action – and surely those boys get far more education in civic mindedness in their bi-monthly meetings and occasional community service projects than one gets in 13 years of all day schooling. It’s cheaper. It works better. And it’s a heck of a lot more fun.

Of course, it’s not news to anyone that the purpose of government schooling isn’t really to address some hard to measure or understand “public” good that emanates from attending school. There are many purposes of course, and there’s no reason to bring them out here. The only (obvious I think) point I wanted to make was that should students of economics take anything like a serious look at government schooling and the claims made on its behalf, it would be plain as day that not only does the emperor have no clothes, but that the entire entourage is engaged in something of a nudist parade.

One Response to “The Standard Public Goods Case FOR Government Schooling”

  1. Harry says:

    Well said, WC.

    Every day I see tweaks to TUW, which broke down just before Thanksgiving, and has been repaired without assistance from the government, I assume. Unless Monroe County came in and rewarded you for recycling your trash and sending your kids to Catholic schools.

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