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Miron's Conundrum: Why Libertarians Should Think the Education Market Has Failed

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When he launched his first blog, Jeff Miron was explicit about his motivation:

In this blog I provide a libertarian perspective on economic and social policy. By libertarian, I mean consequential libertarian, not philosophical libertarian. Thus, my arguments are based on assessments of costs and benefits, not on assertions about rights. My claim is that most government policies do more harm than good, even when the policies have good intentions and even when private arrangements work imperfectly.

From this starting point, it is natural to infer that promoting libertarian policies is socially beneficial, and promoting contrary policies is socially harmful. After all, that's the only way that Miron's blog could pass his own cost-benefit test!

Now in a recent post on his current blog, Miron questions whether overwhelming left-wing dominance in academia is a bad thing:

The facts raise an interesting question, however, and one that should trouble right-wing critics of the current situation: why is liberal dominance of academia a problem given that it represents a market outcome? That is, if liberal academics are so bad, why does the market support so many of them? Why is there not a demand for conservative universities? If one believes markets do things right, in what sense is the liberalism in academia excessive?

But strangely, Miron doesn't consider the answer that flows directly from his blog's inaugural premise. Namely: Leftist professors promote leftist policies, leftist policies are largely contrary to libertarianism, and are therefore socially harmful.

The problem isn't that the market has failed for college students or their parents. They're basically shopping for a higher salary after graduation, and they typically get what they pay for. No, the problem is that - as a side effect of their main function - universities pollute the intellectual culture for everyone, leading to worse policies.

The broader lesson is that libertarian reformers - or at least consequential libertarian reformers like Miron - have to believe that the market for ideas is somehow inefficient. If it isn't, what are they complaining about?

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The author at Asymmetrical Information in a related article titled The Market for Professors writes:
    Miron askswhy is liberal dominance of academia a problem given that it represents a market outcome? That is, if liberal academics are so bad, why does the market support so many of them? Why is there not a demand for conservative universities? If one b... [Tracked on August 7, 2006 7:02 PM]
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Faré writes:

Libertarians believe that free markets are somewhat efficient. The market for ideas is not free in the US, and even less so in other countries. Therefore there is no paradox in Libertarians complaining about the market for ideas being inefficient.

The most urgent necessity is, not that the State should teach, but that it should allow education. All monopolies are detestable, but the worst of all is the monopoly of education. -- F. Bastiat
Steve writes:

Kvetching about the service is also a market mechanism.

John T. Kennedy writes:

Doesn't saying you are a consequentialist libertarian mean you are not a libertarian when consequences argue against libertarian policy?

Why bring libertarianism into it at all? Why not just say you're a consequentilaist?

And of course this still begs the question: By what standard are consequences to be judged?

Biopolitical writes:

So, the college education market works fine for students, parents and professors, but generates a negative externality for others. It is thus inefficient. Government intervention to correct this externality would probably make matters even worse. For those who enjoy complaining, the topic is perfect.

Neel Krishnaswami writes:

Honestly, I'm astonished by this post, because I didn't think it was possible to be a libertarian economist and cavalierly ignore one of Coase's most famous papers.

Of course I don't believe markets are efficient, because firms exist, and they wouldn't, if all transaction costs could be internalized. Therefore we know for suere that real markets aren't efficient. Furthermore, Ronald Coase observes in "The Market for Goods and the Market for Ideas" that every market failure for goods is matched by a much greater one in the market for ideas. So, the consequentialist case for regulating the market for ideas is stronger than the case for regulating the market for ideas. And since it's obvious that regulating ideas -- ie, engaging in censorship and forced indoctrination -- is a hugely terrible idea, it's clear that regulating the market for goods is also a bad idea.

There you go: consequentialist libertarianism in a world with an imperfect market for ideas.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

I suspect if all government subsidy for higher education were eradicated (such as government guaranteed loans for those majors that often have difficulty paying them back, grants, state schools like Berkeley, etc.), you would see a dramatic decrease in the liberal bias in higher education.

dorkafork writes:

I was under the impression that libertarians don't believe that free markets can't be inefficient, rather they are in the vast majority of cases more efficient than other alternatives. I don't see why libertarians still can't complain about a free market that's functioning imperfectly. Otherwise they'd look at the small percentage of libertarian voters and *poof* into non-existence like a Babelfish.

napablogger writes:

Maybe I am missing something, I am hardly an economist, but isn't higher education a highly protected market? If you are a conservative or even moderate you don't get hired most places, unless you hide it. Isn't that protectionism?

I can tell you it didn't work for me as a student, on two different occasions I expressed contrary views about the subject at hand in the class and both times got downgraded, once I got flunked.

When I told other students after the class was over at a get together at least ten of them told me I was the smartest one in the class and they couldn't believe I was flunked. So I went to the Professors (there were three of them) and they told me I disrupted the class with my contrary viewpoints and they would not consider changing my grade despite the views of the other students. This was based simply on class discussion, the school was Michigan State University.

NONE of the other students agreed with them, even the ones that didn't agree with me.

Those Professors could still be there, and I am gone, with my zero in hand. My experience is that this is typical of "academic freedom" at Universities. You learn to shut up fast, especially in grad school. Whatever your Professor thinks is what you think or you are gone.

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