Bryan Caplan  

Tolstoy on the Economics of Education

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Here's a fascinating dialogue on the economics of education from Anna Karenina. Two country gentlemen - Levin and Sviiazhsky - are arguing about how to raise farm productivity. Sviiazhsky's answer: `To educate the people three things are needed: schools, and schools, and schools.' Levin objects:

`But how do schools help matters?'

`They give the peasant fresh wants.'

`Well, that's a thing I've never understood,' Levin replied with heat. `In what way are schools going to help the people to improve their material position? You say schools, education, will give them fresh wants. So much the worse, since they won't be capable of satisfying them. And in what way a knowledge of addition and subtraction and the catechism is going to improve their material condition, I never could make out. The day before yesterday I met a peasant woman in the evening with a little baby, and asked her where she was going. She said she was going to the wisewoman; her boy had screaming fits, so she was taking him to be doctored. I asked, ``Why, how does the wisewoman cure screaming fits?' ``She puts the child on the hen roost and repeats some charm....''

`Well, you're saying it yourself! What's wanted to prevent her taking her child to the hen roost to cure it of screaming fits is just...' Sviiazhsky said, smiling good-humoredly.

`Oh, no!' said Levin with annoyance; `that method of doctoring I merely meant as a simile for doctoring the people with schools. The people are poor and ignorant - that we see as surely as the peasant woman sees the baby has fits because it screams. But in what way this trouble of poverty and ignorance is to be cured by schools is as incomprehensible as how the hen roost affects the screaming. What has to be cured is what makes him poor.'

`Well, in that, at least, you're in agreement with Spencer, whom you dislike so much. He says, too, that education may be the consequence of greater prosperity and comfort, of more frequent washing, as he says, but not of being able to read and write....'

`Well, then, I'm very glad - or the contrary, very sorry - that I'm in agreement with Spencer; only I've known it a long while. Schools can do no good; what will do good is an economic organization in which the people will become richer, will have more leisure - and then there will be schools.'

I'm tempted to say that Tolstoy (or at least Tolstoy wearing the mask of Spencer) anticipates the signaling model, but that's not quite right. As far as I can tell, he's actually defending the pure consumption model of education: Education is not an investment that causes wealth; education is consumption caused by wealth. Hmm.

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COMMENTS (5 to date)
Troy Camplin writes:

Education is only valuable to the middle class and the rich (this does not exclude the occasional wise poor person). The poor don't value it. When the poor become middle classed, like my father (who, with only an 8th grade education, became working middle classed by working in the coal mines of Kentucky). My father thought education was very important -- for me and my brother. The two of us now have graduate degrees. Education was important for him because he could afford it -- and because, as he made more money, he saw that it was important. He instilled that in his children. If you're very poor, it is more important to have the children around helping make money than to be out wasting their time in school. This is how they see it.

Fazal Majid writes:

To further your point: one thing East Bloc communist countries (or even Cuba) did reasonably well was mass education and health care. That did not help them get rich.

Themain issue is that education won't by itself create the opportunities to apply it, or the income required to afford the new demand (wants) it induces (like books). That can only be achieved by productivity gains, i.e:

1) being able to do your job better, even as a peasant, because you understand biology better and don't waste resources on witch doctors any more.


2) Invent something new that creates value (like a new yoke for oxen, say, or a better plough).

Needless to say, Communist economies (or even Socialist ones like France) are not very good at 2).

People like Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Edison were great at inventing and creating value, despite not having had much of a formal education.

Dave writes:

The assumption here is that all types of education are the same. Teaching HVAC design in a community college is an investment that causes wealth. Sending one's kid to Mount Holyoke to learn sociology is an example of consumption.

Paul writes:


That can only be achieved by productivity gains

Truer words were never spoken. William Lewis takes a controversial position in his book Power of Productivity against a primary focus on education in failed states. Rather, his detailed micro-economic study supports enhancing productivity for the common worker, ie. having a standard size brick for building rather than hundreds of different sizes.

Hugo Pottisch writes:

"place of instruction," O.E. scol, from L. schola, from Gk. skhole "school, lecture, discussion," also "leisure, spare time," originally "a holding back, a keeping clear," from skhein "to get" + -ole by analogy with bole "a throw," stole "outfit," etc. The original notion is "leisure," which passed to "otiose discussion," then "place for such." The PIE base is *segh- "to hold, hold in one's power, to have" (see scheme).


However - leisure does not necessarily equal wealth? Germans have roughly the same hourly productivity and income as Americans and yet they work less. Sometimes leisure (education) reduces wealth? As if it had a price... as if it were a consumption good? Wait...

Tolstoy was quite something...

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