Bryan Caplan  

Can I Sit In?

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Yesterday morning I found myself in a shuttle with two of the world's most eminent labor economists.  So I presented one of my favorite puzzles for human capital extremists: Why is the best education in the world already free?  Colleges do not card.  With a few exceptions, any presentable adult can simply show up on campus and learn to his heart's content. 

Both labor economists simply denied my premise.  Yes, they'd allow an enrolled student to sit in on their courses.  But if a random person asked to attend one of their classes, they'd turn him down flat. 

Their answers contradict my entire experience with higher education.  From what I've seen, most professors are flattered if someone asks to unofficially study at their feet.  So what gives?  A few possibilities:

1. Professors at top schools are exceptionally unwelcoming of curious outsiders.

2. Economics professors at top schools are exceptionally unwelcoming of curious outsiders.

3. These two economics professors are exceptionally unwelcoming of curious outsiders.

What do you think?  Relevant first-hand experiences from professors and curious outsiders are especially welcome.


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (52 to date)
Ryan writes:

Andrei Shleifer let me sit in on one of his lectures. A fellow student (not from Harvard) sat in on his entire course.

Swimmy writes:

Robin Hanson took several free classes at Stanford, so (1) seems unlikely. (This was in the 80s, I suppose it's possible things have changed since then.) I have no experience with 2. 3 seems likely, but it's hard to know. Some thoughts:

Class size matters. Of course in a class of 100 people, they wouldn't even notice if someone sat in on the course, and many introductory econ courses are exactly like this. Perhaps this isn't the case at top schools, lending more credence to (2).

The level of the course also matters. What courses do these professors teach? Graduate classes are less likely to allow free learning, since they are usually small, focused on student's individual projects, require lab access to complete course work, require extensive previous knowledge, etc. Lower-level classes seem more likely to allow sitting in.

An experimental test would be cheap and would be an interesting publication. If you didn't want to lie to professors (I want to sit in!), you could use survey data instead (What would you say to someone who wants to sit in?). After that all it would take is a copy/paste email to a lot of randomly chosen profs.

Mark Bahner writes:

From my experience as a engineering GTA a long, long time ago, I don't think I would have recognized an outsider in most classes. Many classes had 40-50 people, and I might have recognized an outsider towards the very end of the triemester.

An even longer time ago, when I was an undergraduate and took economics courses, many of the Intro to Economics courses were "TV" courses, or taught live to well over 100 students. I'm certain an outsider of appropriate age would not be recognized in the live courses, and I don't think there were any people but students (i.e., no GTAs, and certainly no professor) in the "TV" courses.

NZ writes:

Swimmy's comment is useful.

I graduated from college a few years ago, but I've thought about going back and crashing some classes in subjects I wish I'd studied more or have since become interested in. I look unassuming and I figure I could get away with it.

Like Swimmy hinted, I'd have to make sure I was crashing a big lecture class (at least 75 or 100 students), not a small lab class. Those big classes are usually introductory.

While I could sit there and listen, I probably wouldn't be so bold as to raise my hand and offer a comment for discussion or anything like that, lest I should be found out somehow as a result. That means I'd have to count on the other students in the class to offer up insightful comments and feedback. But most of the dullards in big introductory lecture classes are incapable of this.

One way around that problem would be having an insider--a legitimately enrolled student--abet my crime. If I had something I wanted to say, I could just write it down and slip it over to my legit friend. Or if we both had laptops, I could just instant message my comment to him. Of course, then I'd have to make sure he could deliver the comments in his own verbal style, without arousing suspicion by looking like he was always reading his comments off a piece of paper or his laptop.

But then, if I had such a talented and dedicated friend who was already taking an introductory lecture class, there's a good chance he could just explain everything he was learning to me while he was outside of class (and since he's so gifted he could probably afford to part with his textbook for a few days while I caught up), defeating the purpose of crashing the class in the first place.

So until then, I'll have to settle for a cocktail of Wikipedia, the library, and assembling a set of friends with diverse expertise between them.

Glen Raphael writes:

As an outsider non-student (after graduating from a different school), I audited some of David Friedman's classes at Stanford (in Law and Economics, I think); he was fine with it.

Long before that when I was a mere high school student I attended a bunch of math lectures at Stanford and did research in the Stanford Libraries for free. As near as I can tell, at Stanford the math/science/econ profs had no objection to non-students attending lectures.

Fergus O'Rourke writes:

Doesn't an ethical issue arise here ?

Professors get paid well, and their employers have to recover that cost by charging for access. "Colleges do not card" only because the informal system makes it unnecessary. That system is at least partly an ethical habit.

Professors lecture only to those who have acquired an entitlement to hear. That, they may feel, is a duty they owe, an incident of their employment contract. Exceptions do not change that rule.

Jacob AG writes:

Permission isn't strictly necessary...

Robert writes:

I think its possible that the two Professors lied to you because they realised that to admit the truth would undermine their beliefs. I doubt that they were being actively dishonest; I think that they were also probably lying to themselves, and honestly believed what they were saying was true when they said it. However I think that if someone came to them and asked to sit-in on a class they would most likely agree. But I might be wrong.

john hare writes:

Is it possible that they have a hard time picturing average people that simply want to learn without the signaling of grades or completed credit hours?

david writes:

Free attendance of classes is only welcomed as advertising for support and payment in some way?

Mark Brophy writes:

According to Reed College:


Steve Jobs was formally enrolled for just six months, starting in the fall of 1972. Short of cash, he did something unconventional--dropped out but stayed on campus, living in Westport. He spent his time auditing classes--including the famous course on calligraphy from Robert Palladino [1969-84], which would later have such profound impact on the pioneering Macintosh.

http://blogs.reed.edu/reed_magazine/2011/10/think-different.html

Robin Hanson writes:

In the late 80s and early 90s I sat in for free on many classes at Stanford. They were mostly graduate classes, and many of them were small classes with lots of class discussion. I participated in those discussions. I asked permission from many professors, and none turned me down. In one class I did so well that the prof was willing to write me a letter of recommendation to grade school.

Jonathan writes:

"a letter of recommendation to grade school"

The level of competition is just silly these days. :)

Peter St. Onge writes:

I wouldn't mind at all so long as the person could pass as a student.

If they didn't look like a student (looked homeless or were 8 years old) then I'd be concerned about other faculty objecting.

I suppose there's a signaling story in there.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

What do you consider "human capital extremist"? I think human capital constitutes an important part of why people go to college, but the obvious answer seems to me to be that people pay for school because they need that investment to be certified for employers (signalling).

Does "human capital extremist" mean that there is no signalling? If that's the case I wonder how many "human capital extremists" there really are.

Phil writes:
One way around that problem would be having an insider--a legitimately enrolled student--abet my crime.

Is it a crime? I don't think so.

The university sells educational credit and if one amasses enough of them in the proper configuration, a degree. Merely sitting in does not earn credit - one needs to be enrolled and take exams in order to get credit. So unless you are charged with trespassing, I see no crime here.

A learned person publicly reciting things - that should be free to any listener who otherwise is not disruptive and interfering with the contractual relationships the other students have with the university.

While learning something new is certainly valuable; its value is not highly marketable. Try applying for a job that requires a degree and telling the employer "but I sat in on all the classes."

Scott Saliency writes:

In my experience the professors you talked to are wrong. I think they don't want to admit the fact because it messes with the theory they have.
--------------

I have audited for free so many classes (more then 10) from Columbia.

NYU is a bit more hard, they have security, but I have taken a few classed.

The new school is also possible.

This is all in NYC where security is a thing. I bet schools that do not need to worry about bums, ect have less security.


My father went to Maine's state school fifteen years ago and though matriculated audited some classes at first. They even graded his papers and let him take tests if he paid a small fee. Just no credit.


Also some schools will give you credit for work experience, not an internship. I did this and it was realy just paying for credits

Joel writes:

I agree with Robert. I suspect that the economists want to believe that they would refuse such a request, but that if someone ever asked they would probably end up letting them audit the class after all.

Steve Miller writes:

Daniel asked,"Does 'human capital extremist' mean that there is no signalling? If that's the case I wonder how many "human capital extremists" there really are."

They exist, and they are mostly economists. Heckman is an interesting twist on the conventional view, because I believe he is still a human capital extremist, but he believes the most important type of human capital is "soft skills", conscientiousness in particular. While Bryan might say education is a signal of conscientiousness, Heckman believes education teaches conscientiousness (and agreeableness, along with some other traits).

It's elegant, because the soft skills argument explains how a philosophy major can become a highly productive executive. But so does the signaling argument.

Paul Sangrey writes:

One has to remember that all decisions are made on the margin, and so what does a college sell on the margin? I would argue that its marginal benefit is the signaling provided by a degree. From personal experience, From person experience, most subjects, unless they are extremely difficult for the student, are less expensive to learn time-wise through a book or online sources than through a classroom setting. Furthermore, one would think there are strong selection effects in people who consider doing something like auditing a class, in that only the more intelligent people would even consider it. This basically means the only real place that it would make a lot of sense would be in upper-level or graduate level classes, where policing would be quite easy.

This may sound like a rampant signaling argument, but there is an important distinction to make between colleges marginal benefit being the signaling they provide and their total benefit being the signaling that they provide. Nor is this to say that if there was no human capital element to college education, but rather that the colleges can only make themselves the most efficient alternative by selling two goods, or even three in the case of social life. To sum it all up, colleges are not the most efficient producers of human capital, so they do not need to card, but that does not mean that they are not producers of human capital.

Todd Kuipers writes:

My guess (echoing Robert's):

4. World-renowned labour economists, surprised by an unusual question, present a knee-jerk response signalling that their sought-after time is not one to be given away.

Their time is valuable and hence free is not on - at least in public. How else could the signalling value of education be maintained?

Madeleine writes:

I am a current professor and former curious outsider. From both sides, it has been my universal experience that qualified outsiders are welcome. My sample covers around 15 classes over four universities.

JeffM writes:

Although my experiences were not at a top university and one was about seven or eight years ago, they may be relevant.

I recognized a gap in what I wanted to know and asked to audit a relevant course. I made a profound mistake by asking the secretary of the department what the required procedure was. She of course knew that I had to get permission from the professor AND register. Permission took about five seconds. Registration was virtually impossible. I needed a transcript (from 1966), recommendations, on and on. The course would have been over before I got all the paperwork together. Being obnoxious, I insisted on talking to a dean. After a long discussion, she said, "This would be so easy if you were only over 55." It turned out that there was special treatment, at a ridiculously low price, for those like me who are racing toward senility. I not only got to audit the course, but got access for a year to all the university libraries (including on-line archives like JSTOR). As a practical matter, once I had access to the library and the reading list, I probably could have dispensed with the lectures.

But the professor was as amenable as could be, and I took the lectures in addition to reading a big chunk of the reading list. The final was a take-home essay on one of three possible questions. Although only auditing, I was interested in one of the questions and so wrote and submitted my essay. It took quite a while for me to get a response, but I eventually got a very nice note making a few quite pertinent observations and criticisms and expressing a wish that his grad students were as interested in problems of method in the social sciences.

I had a very similar experience very recently. The head of a department at the same univerity asked whether I was interested in being on the mailing list for a series of colloquia and invited me to attend any that interested me. I did attend one and participate in it, and no one gave it a second thought.

My experience is that academics, as opposed to bureaucrats, tend to ignore technical status and to welcome participation by those who seem interested and knowledgeable. Maybe economists are different.

Mark Jeffcoat writes:

I've just learned that my local school, the University of Texas at Austin, has an official policy on this: "A nonstudent under age 65 needs instructor consent, and will pay $20 per course to the cashiers in Main Bldg room 8."

So at least here $20 will cover any ethical qualms you might have about stealing education.

Floccina writes:

If a student takes a few classes more than once, because he gets a bad grade the first time around, why do most colleges report the first grade along with second. My son's college only allows "grade forgiveness" on one class why limit it? Because everyone really knows its more test than education.

EclectEcon writes:

In my >40 years teaching experience, I was asked several times by people if I would mind if they sat in on my course. I always agreed immediately.

But those were always large or larger enrollment courses (75 - 500). If someone had asked to sit in on one of my grad or honours seminars, I would have grilled them on their background and preparation before agreeing to their participation.

So if the world-class labour economists were thinking of small grad seminars, I can understand their responses.

Troy Camplin writes:

I don't believe them for a moment. For one, what are the chances they would even notice a new person in one of their classes (undergrad, at least)?

andy weintraub writes:

I taught economics at a major university for more than thirty five years and always welcomed those who wanted to sit in. A few times non-enrolled students did so for the whole semester. After class one day I asked one why he didn't enroll. He answered, "I intend to do so next semester. But I need an "A" in this course so I'm sitting in this semester."

I never followed up on this, but he didn't enroll in my course the next semester.

PrometheeFeu writes:

I find the reverse of your argument is more compelling. In my experience attempting to audit classes, the larger the class, the more likely auditors will be accepted. However, most teachers will generally agree that they teach more effectively with smaller classes being able to give more time and attention to the students. In other words, the classes where you would acquire more human capital are the ones where auditing is less likely to be allowed.

That sounds like a point in favor of the human capital model.

MingoV writes:

I formerly taught at medical schools. If a person who was not a registered student tried to sit in on my lectures, I would have told him to leave. If a student from another department or college wanted to sit in on my lectures, I would have welcomed him. The difference, to me, is simple. The latter paid to attend the school; the former wants to occupy a classroom seat and benefit from my teaching without paying. That is both inappropriate and a policy violation at the medical schools where I taught.

PrometheeFeu writes:

I really don't understand the moralizing about sitting on lectures. Excessive participation in discussions could lower the opportunity of other students to participate in said discussions. (though some participation could be a positive improvement) But what is the claim here with regard to the immorality of sitting on a lecture? The extra depreciation of the chair?

Vipul Naik writes:

Unregistered students in the class illustrate a free rider problem -- until such time as the lecture room reaches full capacity, in which case it becomes a tragedy of the commons problem. In practice, the number of unregistered students attending a class is way short of the level that would be needed to make the room reach full capacity and exert negative externalities on the registered students.

I sat in on one of Gary Becker's classes on Human Capital. I'm a Ph.D. student in Mathematics at the University of Chicago, so I'm in the University, but registering for any class outside the math department is not acceptable for Ph.D. students, and I didn't want to register anyway.

I didn't actually tell him I wasn't registered, but at some point when I answered one of his questions, the matter came up. He jokingly noted that I was a free rider, and then jokingly mentioned something about taxing me, but that was it. I participated a reasonable bit in the class, and nobody seemed to mind.

I also sat in on one of Robert Fogel's classes at the business school, again without registering. I don't think I told anyone I was unregistered, and nobody bothered to ask.

Both Becker and Fogel are economics professors at the University of Chicago with Nobel Prizes to their name, so they fit the "economics professors from top schools" bill.

Vipul Naik writes:

While this isn't strictly related to the question asked (see my earlier comment which addresses that) I did talk to one person about why she registered for classes (she was a graduate-student-at-large, so she paid per class -- and didn't get any specific degree for it -- and this was after the point where credentials were relevant for anything for her).

Her basic idea was that a lot of the benefit of attending a class was in doing the homeworks and preparing for and taking the tests, and it was worth paying something in the range of $2300 for one quarter (UChicago works on a quarter system) to be incentivized to do the work regularly.

She ultimately did drop one of her two math classes after some discussion, since I persuaded her the material was easy enough to study by oneself.

Interesting vignette though: Graduate students at large (i.e., not working toward any particular degree) pay about $2300 per course at the U of C (for one quarter -- about ten weeks of classes) and undergraduates pay about $3750 per course (if taking courses individually or taking courses beyond a full quarter's enrollment). The main difference, it seems to me, is that undergraduate courses go toward a degree, whereas the graduate-student-at-large courses are just learning+individual course grade+possible letters of recommendation. This suggests that the difference $3750 - $2300 = $1450 is mostly the "degree premium" and if you consider the degree premium to be signaling, that's more than 1/3 of the cost of the course. Another possibility, though, is that the premium for undergraduates is a cost-shifting from other ways that undergraduates cost the University more money than graduate students at large.

Tom West writes:

Robin Hanson:

In one class I did so well that the prof was willing to write me a letter of recommendation to grade school.

Thank you for my chuckle of the day.

Rudd-O writes:

Option 4:

The two economists you were talking to, are so stubbornly attached to their belief system, that they had no problem denying any reality which threatened to contradict their conclusions.

In other words, right before you asked them, they would have had no problem letting people sit in their classes, but as soon as they deduced where you were going with the point you made (fractions of a second), suddenly they "became" chameleonic you-must-pay-for-my-lecture Nazis.

In my experience, Option 4 is the option that fits most cases. That is the process which explains how fabrications and lies accrete to form ideologies.

Ronald McPaul writes:

I've audited an electrical engineering course and both the professor and the TA were welcoming and further they were even interested in my goals!

NZ writes:

@Phil, I was assuming a situation where my being on campus was essentially trespassing, and that the professor would likely at least feel obligated to act according to his employer's official policy on trespassers, if he did not act on it enthusiastically.

Also, it is kind of immoral to sneakily consume for free something that is not technically being offered for free. Somewhat tangentially, it's at least as immoral as eating a bunch of free samples at the grocery store without any intention to buy the product, right?

Of course, if what your tuition buys you is just the piece of paper at the end, then crashing a lecture is fine since you're not earning credit towards a piece of paper. But I dunno, it still feels wrong to me somehow. But, perhaps, not so wrong that I'd never do it. I'm just saying a lot of factors would have to line up right.

Dan Carroll writes:

This may have already been addressed - I haven't read all of the comments. But look at incentives:

Profs get paid regardless of who comes.

Profs want to extend their reputation, and want to feel important.

So profs benefit in intangible ways when extra people show up, and it doesn't cost them anything. For smaller classes, other students might object due to the diluted classroom experience, though undergrads are unlikely to care. But prior permission is likely required for the smaller classes.

Universities don't hire guards to keep people out (at least not the ones I've been to). However, if it started to occur on a widescale basis, then I suspect universities would crack down. But it doesn't, so they don't.

Therefore, I suspect your professor friends are full of it.

Yancey Ward writes:
In one class I did so well that the prof was willing to write me a letter of recommendation to grade school.

I knew Robin Hanson was brilliant, but I didn't know his parents used Stanford courses as daycare.

stephen writes:

Or if you are unable to sit in on a course, coulnd't you borrow the textbook from a library and read it? Education is cheap, its the diploma that's expensive.

Aeon J. Skoble writes:

No, no, no, no. My time and enregy are finite, so every minute I spend on a person "sitting in" is a minute I don't have available for someone who has paid money for my time. That's to defraud my paying students and I won't do it, and you shouldn't either. Now it's true that all my classes are 15-35 students, and it's never straight-up lecture but always at least partially interactive. I suppose that in a 200 seat lecture, where the prof is not actually interacting with anyone, it wouldn't have the effect of defrauding the students, although I can't imagine being the kind of prof who doesn't allow questions and doesn't interact with students. That's probably a different kind of fraud. The fact that it's flattering if people want to bask in my presence shouldn't make me overlook my duties to paying customers.

Shane L writes:

Interestingly, this story has just popped up in Ireland, about a nursing student who keeps attending lectures after failing exams:

"The High Court has granted an order for the arrest of a former nursing student who has refused to stop attending lectures despite having failed first-year exams.

Galway Mayo Institute of Technology brought proceedings against Anna Marie Flanagan..., claiming she is in breach of a High Court order to stop her attending lectures.

The High Court was told that Ms Flanagan is a former nursing and midwifery student who failed her first exams.

She continued to attend second-year lectures. In May of this year GMIT secured a High Court order to prevent her from doing so.

...

Her continued presence at lectures was disruptive to other students, lawyers for GMIT said."
http://www.rte.ie/news/2012/0920/gmit-arrest-order.html

[Quoted material elided to comply with copyright. Please keep your quotes to a minimum to comply with fair use laws.--Econlib Ed.]

Ken B writes:

As a comp-sci grad student I asked a couple of English profs if I could audit their graduate level seminar courses (never having done a single English course). One was stunned, looked up at the corner of the ceiling, said "this is the craziest idea I've heard in a long time." Then he looked at me, looked up at another corner and said "I think I like it! I do like it!" The other prof just warned me I wouldn't be allowed to be a wallflower. (HA!!) And a Greek prof tried to get me to sit in on his courses. I never had any hint from any prof that an enthusiastic dilettante would not be welcome. So at least in Canada 20+ years ago, Bryan is right in my experience.

Silas Barta writes:

A lot of objectors keep making the argument "The auditor takes discussion time away from other students".

I think that misses the central point (the "Least Convenient Possible world" in LessWrong jargon): the question is about students who *just* want to listen in. If it's really just a matter of taking resources from other students, then answer the question under the proviso that the student is not allowed to ask questions or otherwise "tax" your resources.

(In graduate school, I had a professor who did exactly this: he allowed auditors, but specifically announced at the beginning of the course that only those enrolled in the course could ask questions, and that if there weren't enough handouts to give to everyone, auditors would have to go without.)

So is your real objection that you wouldn't want to have to differentiate the students like that?

Aeon J. Skoble writes:

If the auditors understood that they are not to take time or resources from paying students, then no, I wouldn't mind if they sat in (providing there are physically enough seats, which sometimes there isn't). That said, I know that some universities have an explicit "audit" mode when registering for classes, and I'm not objecting to that.

JeffM writes:

The argument that a taxpayer, a huge portion of whose taxes goes to support education, is a free rider on the educational system is absurd. The educational system in the US is a huge drain on the public fisc through subsidies, grants, and exemption from taxation (and what the public gets in return from that system are generally abysmal results). Until the universities are willing to give up all reliance on public money, the average student is the free rider, not the occasional taxpayer who wants to audit a class.

Daublin writes:

The question doesn't seem to come up much in practice. Introspecting a little, if I wanted to learn something today, I'd exhaust Wikipedia and then get a few books on the subject. Once I had read through them, I would if possible want some one-on-one time with someone who knows the subject. This is often possible by doing some sort of volunteer work or another.

I'm struggling to see where a college classroom would fit into this picture. I wouldn't want to attend them before reading anything on my own. Once I've read some on my own, though, the thought of sitting through a sequence of lectures leaves me just weary.

Maybe others think the same. For that reason, or perhaps another, I haven't observed this issue coming up much in practice. Most college classes just don't have a row of sit-ins.

Aeon J. Skoble writes:

JeffM, I hear you, but by that reasoning, I'm entitled to free airfare, free food, etc. That's madness. Yes, end subsidies to all these things, I agree, but remember, everyone is being taxed, so the tuition-paying students are paying 2x. They are still my priority.

Chris writes:

Small liberal arts colleges would obviously notice and it would obviously upset the dynamic.

But even when I taught at a large university I wouldn't allow it unless it was someone I had a rapport with and I would catch someone after a while. Other people are paying for it. Additionally, TAs would not allow such a person in section and of course, you'd miss out on written assignments and feedback.

HispanicPundit writes:

My experience matches yours. I sat in on basically all of UCSD's core engineering courses. The professors, and there were more than 15 of em, all accepted my request to sit in. They liked that I was engaged and brought some real world work experience. It's a fairly easy thing to do.

Walter writes:

To be honest, I think it depends on a few more factors than just those three. Firstly, a larger class is probably not going to notice another "student" sit in on a lecture. However, in a smaller class, you might get some funny looks and maybe even be approached after the lecture, if you don't get in some serious trouble for it right away.

In response to your statement about professors being flattered at a random person asking if they can sit in on their class, I have little doubt that they would be quite flattered. However, I'm sure they know that it is still not acceptable. Students have to pay enormous amounts of money to formally take their classes, and although much of the world is simply like that, it just wouldn't be fair to them. I would think economics professors to be especially concerned with this.

Finally, I'm reasonably sure there are legal problems with that. I'm not really up-to-snuff on my law, but I'm pretty sure sitting in on a class you aren't officially recognized in would get you into some trouble, especially if someone in the class took offense and brought you to court over it. It would be a big mess, and your argument for valuing learning opportunities would probably be shot down pretty quickly.

While I admire those that want to learn badly enough that they would attend a class they aren't supposed to be in, I still don't think they should. It just wouldn't be right. Everything comes with a price, and the price for college course learning is formal sign-up. I'm sorry if my view offends anyone. I don't mean to.

JeffM writes:

Mr. Skoble

I at least felt that our back and forth did not reach a conclusion and so feel compelled to respond to your most recent comment.

I'd like to start with rhetorical effect. However much an economist may assert the phrase "free rider" to be a technical term of art that is "value free," it is not. The phrase implies a moral judgment that someone is unfairly benefiting from something toward which he did not contribute anything. In fact, the average adult taxpayer in the US contributes heavily toward the educational system and almost certainly more than the marginal cost imposed on that system by his auditing a course. I do not think we disagree on the factual premise of that point although we may disagree on the rhetorical effect. In any case, I do not think the case against auditing by taxpaying adults can logically be based on the proposition that they are absorbing resources with a marginal cost that exceeds the marginal cost of the resources that they have contributed through taxes. Of course, that does not mean that no logical grounds for objecting to auditing are valid. It simply means that, as an empirical fact, auditing seldom falls even within the technical definition of free ridership and so does not raise that particular moral problem.

This issue is entangled with the concept of "public goods," of which education is a classic example. Most students, even college and graduate students, do not pay the average cost of their education through their taxes and tuition combined. Rather, if any group is free riders, it is the students themselves: thanks to payments made by others, they are the ones receiving services while paying less than the average cost of those services. Any taxpayer whose taxes at least equaled the average student's tuition plus taxes would have an equal moral right to audit or even to take a course without any tuition whatsoever. (At a private university, the calculus is admittedly much more difficult because such organizations receive far less of their funding from government and because estimating the value of government services that they receive tax free is quite uncertain.)

I suggest a thought experiment. Would most people consider immoral a law that required public universities to permit any taxpayer who has paid at least $100 in state income tax in the previous year to audit one course each semester, provided that the selected course is not filled with students paying tuition?

In your second post, you raised what I believe is a more substantial point. The government subsidizes many things, and yet not all of them are provided free to all comers. Is there a morally or economically rational basis to the distinction? I have never seen one articulated. In any case, it is seldom the case that the fee for government services covers the cost of service. This makes me believe that the only valid argument for the distinction is to prevent a tragedy of the commons. Air travel is not free (for most of us), but entrance into an airport terminal is free. I suspect the reason is that free air transport would greatly increase the resources required whereas free entry into an airport terminal has very little effect on the size and number of terminals required.

A tragedy of the commons problem seems, however, like the most fanciful of objections with respect to access to lectures and reading lists for university courses.

Jeff Morrow

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