Bryan Caplan  

Why is the Right Soft on Education?

Don't jump to conclusions (mar... The Use of Force in Society: D...
When the American left complains about domestic poverty, you might think the American right's standard response would be either:

1. "What poverty?  By any sensible standard, the 'American poor' are rich."

2. "America doesn't have a poverty problem; it's the American poor who have a conscientiousness problem."

Unfortunately, few right-wingers embrace either of these strong responses.  The modal reaction, rather, is:

3. "We need more and better education for the poor."

The "better" part isn't necessarily a call for bigger government; sometimes it's a plea to convert existing expenditures into vouchers to check the power of the public school monopoly.  The "more" part, however, is clearly a call for bigger government - to pile even more government spending on top of the existing annual trillion dollar pan-boondoggle.  While it's easy to understand why "big government conservatives" would favor such an answer, even avowed "limited government conservatives" and "free-market economists" often rebut calls for a new War on Poverty with calls for a redoubled War on Ignorance. 

What's going on?  A few stories to ponder:

1. Right-wingers correctly judge that more and better education is a great poverty remedy.  Alas, I can't take this one too seriously.

2. Right-wingers think in positive-sum terms.  Conventional poverty programs are redistributionist, but education spending purports to "grow the pie" by investing in human capital. 

3. Right-wingers love the work ethic.  Conventional poverty programs are need-based, but education is effort-based; no matter how much the government pours into education, the poor can't profit from it without years of hard work.  

4. Right-wingers are meritocratic.  Education, unlike conventional poverty programs, ranks people from best to worst based on their performance - and helps the well-ranked to escape poverty.


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COMMENTS (21 to date)
Steve Roth writes:

5. Right-wingers want to pretend they care about the poor. And (because of #3) they find that proselytizing for education is the least-painful sop they can toss in that direction.

Randall Parker writes:

Right wingers can't state obvious truths because the Left has delegitimized the (correct) view that most people aren't smart enough to benefit from a college education or do cognitively demanding jobs.

If major assumptions can't be challenged and are false then a reasoned debate is not possible.

terrymac writes:

Many so-called "free-marketeers" have a huge blind spot when it comes to education. Even economists who know better will say that eduction will be under-produced if not funded by the government. Hence, Milton Friedman and his push for school vouchers, etc.

But government management of education falls afoul of multiple problems. Not being a true market, it cannot calculate what people want, nor how to produce it efficiently. Worse, the students and their parents are not the main customers; the government itself is; see Joel Spring's book Pedagogies of Globalization: The Rise of the Educational Security State.

Most of today's "free-marketeers" can't imagine an actual free market in education. But research shows that America and England did have such a market, before the rise of compulsory attendance and widespread "free" government schooling. It is obvious to any economist that "free" goods will displace market goods.

There's also James Tooley's research, portrayed in the book The Beautiful Tree, showing that very poor people can and do provide education for their children, which is better and less expensive than the available government education.

Meanwhile, research by NHERI indicates large improvements for home education, even among people of low socioeconomic status and low education. There are a lot of reasons to abandon the "under-provision" excuse for government control of education.

Miguel Madeira writes:

In a democracy, answers 1 and 2 alienate many voters.

Frederick Davies writes:

The Right wants to get re-elected, so they cannot publicly state #1 and #2 without taking a hit with the voters for appearing callous; since more money for Education benefits both the rich and the poor (especially if there is a voucher system), it is the least bad option.

mike shupp writes:

All four of your ideas -- which also appeal to liberal economists, by the way -- plus, since we're considering conservatives, Tradition!

Or, if you prefer, stodginess. We've been running large complicated human societies for six thousand years now, and for most of that time, being educated has correlated well with higher than average living standards, a greater degree of influence in society, increased personal satisfaction, and so on, In a world in which most people have no or little education, it's been obvious to just about all of us that education is a good thing for individuals and the societies they lived within, and that the more educated people the better.

So now we have more college educated people than jobs for them, and more people aspiring to positions in the meritocratic elite than can possibly fit, and it's no longer so obvious that increased education reliably leads to better jobs with improved wealth and social status.

But how long we have been in this position? Ten years? Twenty years perhaps? (Memory says the Occupational Outlook Handback back about 1995 suggested the USA would have a surplus of college educated people by around 2005.) That's not a time period long enough to alter the thinking of middle aged economists or other distinguished academics, or even well meaning politicians. And it's not enough time to force any sort of social reordering, or even to reach agreement on how we might want to reorder the educational world, let alone all of society.

SacredCow writes:

Many citizens privately agree with #1 and #2, but they're not something one can admit publicly. Any politician that did so would be skinned alive in the media. Among other accusations, the most damning and persistent would be one of racism. No politician wants to make themselves a target for such a witchhunt, so few will ever be honest about this.

Since we're on taboo explanations of social issues, I would add that America's poor also have an IQ problem, and that genes play a bot insignificant role in its explanation. If and when genetic engineering becomes real and affordable, I predict that genetic explanations of past inequalities will become widely accepted if not considered obvious. Until then, such explanations shall only be shared in private conversations between friends or anonymous internet commentators.

Bostonian writes:

The pro-life angle is important I think.

Saying we need more and better education is a way of deflecting attention from the importance of IQ. If you think the children of the poor are more likely to be poor than the children of the non-poor largely because they have lower average IQ's and are less able to defer gratification, this suggests that public policy should not encourage the poor to have more children. This collides with the crusade of many on the right to make abortion illegal or very difficult to obtain.

I don't think the government should pay for abortion, but the crusade to ban abortion from the minute of conception will not accomplish anything.

In short, for some on the right, acknowledging heritability leads to eugenics and abortion. The case of Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, is often cited.

J Mann writes:

I question your premise, but my guess is:

(2) The intiuitive sense among right wingers is the "teach a man to fish" idea, and/or that transfer payments are net harmful because they incentivize some behaviors that are bad for the recipients, their families, their communities, and society as a whole.

(5) I think there's a sense that there are some unexploited opportunities in education - that inefficiencies in the current system are holding people back, and that it would be worth paying some more money to cure some of these inefficiencies. (Cf. NCLB).

(6) If you have to spend money on something, because consituents want action, my guess is most people would prefer to spend it on something with a higher chance of making the situation better, and a lower chance of making it worse. Per 2, right wingers would rather have more education rather than more transfers tied to harmful life choices, and per 5, this is especially true when there is a possibility of improving the existing educational system.

Hazel Meade writes:

I think #2 is probably a larger part of the story than is generally socially acceptable to admit. The left has made it verboten to suggest that some people's poverty is their own fault. Or that behavioral problems might be a big cause.

However, I'm not sure that we couldn't *teach* people better behavior. The right used to talk a lot about teaching "character". Somehow that disappeared from the diaglogue, probably because the right used to mix it up with religion, flag-worship and school-prayer. But it might be possible to give kids a basic education in things like proper grooming, good manners, demeanor, showing up on time, and living up to commitments. The truth is, there are lots of kids who honestly, never learn those things in their home environment and don't get it when they get fired for blowing off work later in life.

Maciano writes:

Come on, Bryan.

This right/left redistributionist convo is over. We indulge further into a dead end. Nobody is ever going to uninvent or unimagine the idea of redistribution of money to poor(er) people

The coming decades, the discussion will be, will we replace the welfare state with a basic income/negative tax income credit; the automation/robotics revolution could trigger this development even faster.

I'm very interested what your take is on that issue.

JKB writes:

Well, in the first part of the 20th century, before the "not so" Great Society, more and better education was the path out of poverty. Many right-wingers are direct beneficiaries or have the family story of pa or grandpa.

So right-wingers stick with education is the key, in hopes that it still works. It just might, they hope, if schools in the poorer neighborhoods still enforce discipline, but also if the local neighborhood culture didn't denigrate academic performance. So the right-winger hopes to give poor parents a choice of good schools since government is failing to do that in poor districts. The real problem is the PC blinding of current conditions that need to be accommodated outright, but would be political death.

Not straight to this point regarding rightwingers but I've been thinking of Timothy Taylor's observations in his recent Empathy for the Poor: A Mediation. He sees similarities in his behavior when faced with time scarcity with those of the "poor" suffering from income scarcity. There might be something to extract from there.

Jeff writes:

Miguel and Frederick have the right idea. Just this morning I heard the following on NPR:

A farmers' market pops up once a week in a church parking lot in the quiet town of Bedford. The area's known to be heavy with Republicans. But stroll through the cider donut and maple syrup stands, and you'll find plenty of people who'll vote for Shea-Porter simply because she's not Republican. Like Julie Whitcomb.

Whitcomb says when you look at what Republicans are fighting against – immigration reform, or the Affordable Care Act – you can only draw one conclusion.

"They're mean. It seems they're really, like they don't want to help people. And they sort of assume that everyone who's getting benefits in this country is doing it because they're lazy," she says.

When the truth isn't pretty, you can't speak the truth if you're trying to look pretty.

LD Bottorff writes:

I'm not sure your basic premise is correct. I think people on the right are just as likely to say "We need more opportunities for small businesses to hire the poor. Stop making it so hard to create jobs." Or, for the xenophobic right wingers, "Enforce the immigration laws so that the working poor don't have their wages driven down by the flood of illegals." Right wingers (I consider myself one, despite my views on immigration, drugs, and abortion) are as varied in opinion as those on the left, so it is difficult to see the point of this speculation. However, I did get a laugh out your suggestion that Right-wingers correctly judge that more and better education is a great poverty remedy.

Massimo writes:

SacredCow is right. People frequently privately think that the poor's main problem is low conscientiousness, but that is an ugly truth. Voicing that mindset accomplishes nothing productive, and it is better to simply hold one's tongue on the subject.

John T. Kennedy writes:

Maciano, "Nobody is ever going to uninvent or unimagine the idea of redistribution of money to poor(er) people"

Nobody unimagined the idea of slavery, but it's been curtailed.

ThomasH writes:

Caplan must know a much nicer class of right wingers that I do.

No 2 is the most common response (although perhaps "softened" by the observation that the poor morals of the poor are the result of prior government coddling) and No 1 is the second most common. Their preferred solution is to reduce the coddling and raise taxes on the poor so that everybody has some "skin in the game."

James writes:

Which right wingers are we talking about?

If you mean people running for office, these folks know that claiming education as a remedy for poverty will cost them less votes than any other response.

If you mean the people who normally vote for Republicans, it's because they see many cases where poverty is strongly correlated with very bad and easily avoidable educational outcomes like failure to complete high school.

I don't think either group really suggests that the solution is more years of education.

James Phillips writes:

There are alternatives to endorsing more and better education for the poor, but I agree this tends to be the default for center-right politicians. They are constrained by electoral realities.

One viable alternative is to advocate reducing the minimum wage, and explaining how that would help the poor. It has to be thought out carefully how to respond to the common objections, but if done properly it might not be politically suicidal.

Another more obviously politically viable alternative is advocating more restrictionist immigration policies. That isn't the favored libertarian position, but it is easy to make the case that it would help the native poor by raising their wages.

Joshua Macy writes:

It seems to me that many on right believe that a good education can teach conscientiousness. Maybe the empirical grounds for that are shaky, and all education really does is select for the already conscientious, but it doesn't strike me as obviously crazier than the left's believe that a good education can teach the virtue of sacrifice for the good of the collective.

John L Davidson writes:

talk about projection. there is some evil "left" out there that is the sole point of view about domestic poverty.

Your thinking is more closed than I thought possible. What about those of us who consider that we need educated healthy people for defense (and may need more).

Or that we spend too much on police, jails, and prisons (and commuting time)

or who realize that wealth can often be a function of having educated wealthy neighbors

the pragmatic reasons for dealing with poverty are, alone, sufficient to reject silliness like, "the American poor are rich." This tells us nothing about whether they are as healthy and fit as we need them to be.

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