Bryan Caplan  

An Odd A Priori Argument Against Private Education

Happy Global Hand-Washing Day!... Leonard Liggio RIP...
In her chapter on crime in The Social Benefits of Education (Behrman and Stacey, eds., 1997), Ann Dryden Witte provides an argument against private education likely to win many economists' immediate assent:
Consider a world in which there were no public interventions aimed at socializing children.  In such a world, each family would decide how much to educate its children in the rules of the game and how much to supervise its children's behavior.  In making these decisions, the family would consider the socializing influence of education as it affects the family itself (e.g. better-behaved or more future-oriented children).  But it would be unlikely to give sufficient consideration to the benefit to the community as a whole of having young people who obey the rules of the game.  As a result, children would probably be undersocialized.
A few years later, my friend David Balan formalized this argument.  My reaction, however, remains the same: The facts don't fit.  As my referee report on Balan's original article explained:
Is there any empirical evidence that graduates of private schools exhibit lower levels of morality than graduates of public schools? I would suspect the opposite, though admittedly there is a selection problem. But that selection problem itself cuts against the thesis, for it suggests that parents who send their children to private school DO want to inculcate morality. One plausible explanation is that the externalities of morality are largely infra-marginal.
Balan's piece focused on anti-rent-seeking socialization, but the same holds for crime, teen pregnancy, work ethic, and much more: If anything, private schools place more emphasis on good conduct, not less.  You might think that public schools would at least place more emphasis on patriotism and civics, but even that's far from clear.  How often do religious schools even mention he potential conflict between piety and nationalism, much less urge students to make their faith their primary allegiance?  As far as I can tell, most religious schools try to instill love of God and Country, not denigrate the latter passion at the expense of the former.

You could respond, "Before the 1960s, American public schools placed far more emphasis on socialization."  This is plausible, but note: The famous relevant Supreme Court cases expelled God from public schools, but never lifted a finger against the secular religion of American Democracy.  During the heyday of public school socialization, public schools looked more like religious schools, not less.

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COMMENTS (22 to date)
tom writes:

The argument is even odder than that-

But it would be unlikely to give sufficient consideration to the benefit to the community as a whole of having young people who obey the rules of the game

The premise seems to be that a family, outside of schooling, spends all of its time isolated from society. Having children that don't know the rules means having neighbors that are constantly irritated at you, being unable to find a babysitter and ultimately failing at all of the things that make being a parent easier by allowing you to shift child care when you need it.

Tot take it to the most extreme form of private education- have you ever met a rude child of home schoolers? A parent's incentive to teach their child to behave well increases with the amount of time they spend with their child. A school teacher who will have that child for 9 months of their life, and only then as 1/20th of their class does not reap a lifetime of rewards for imparting good behavior.

Daublin writes:

The problems are clearer if you try to apply it to grown ups. As the argument goes, forcing people into a public sit-down institution for multiple years is worth it because it makes people into better citizens. Why does this stop being true at age 18? Maybe grownups should be given a subsidy for spending more time in school, so that they become better citizens. Would this have the desired effect?

When we consider adults, there are some obvious objections that are easier to see.

The main objection is that school is a poor way to socialize people. Like Tom writes, school is a really weird environment compared to society at large. If you met a 25-year old miscreant that everyone hates to be around, do you think sending them to school for a year would make them any better? I don't. I think the best way to learn to interact in society is to actually do it. Go bag a grocery. Go buy a grocery from someone doing the same thing. Go to a singalong and try to add to the whole. Navigate a public road on foot, without having the extra restrictions that a school's roads will have.

The other objection is based on liberty. Being forced into school is ruinous for whatever choices a person might make for themselves. It's not unlike the military draft. You're considered too unimportant as an individual to get to decide how you will spend your day.

Both of these objections are also true for children. I don't think that the social skills we learn in schools are a very good match for how we should behave as grownups. Nor do I think the government is better than a child's parents for deciding what the kid will do.

Jane Doe writes:

Seems like an awkward argument. This is my amateur understanding, as a paraphrase: "Because public schools are like prisons, when we remove children from them they become criminal. Or more likely to be criminal."

Danno755 writes:

You could respond, "Before the 1960s, American public schools placed far more emphasis on socialization."

Was there a greater emphasis on socialization before the 1960 as compared to today? I believe there is still an emphasis on socialization but what is emphasized as changed. In the 60's and before, there was a greater emphasis on manners and safety, showing films about letting people off the elevator before you get on and to walk facing traffic, than today. Plus not all of the emphasis was left to the public schools. I recall an episode on a NPR show about factories showing "industrial films" during the lunch hours. The title I remember them mentioning was "How to Date Your Family."

Now, I gather through listening to my nieces and nephews, the emphasis has changed from proper manners to communitarianism -- humans are a social animal and we need to think of the state first.

Andrew_FL writes:
Consider a world in which there were no public interventions aimed at socializing children. In such a world, each family would decide how much to educate its children in the rules of the game and how much to supervise its children's behavior.

Am I the only one who parses this as suggesting that a "world in which there were no public interventions aimed at socializing children" is one in which only homeschooling occurs?

The parents in a world without public education would be able to choose which private schools to send their children to, or to home school them. But only if they choose the later is it true that the family decides "how much to educate its children in the rules of the game and how much to supervise its children's behavior."

If kids are sent to a school of any kind, it's the school's decision (that is, the decision of those who set school policy on the subject) who "decide how much to educate its children in the rules of the game and how much to supervise its children's behavior."

This I think is a fairly glaring flaw in this line of reasoning. Even if the incentive for a family is not to inculcate in it's children a proper degree of socialization, it does not follow that private schools face the same incentives as private families!

Joe writes:

Public high school *taught* me to cheat.

I'll never forget that first day in high school math when literally everybody in my math class cheated when the teacher left the room during a quiz, or in middle school when a particularly vicious girl would just straight up steal my hw.

Those were an extreme examples, but copying homework assignments (at least for assignments that could be copied) was the norm, same as at my current college.

I always felt that school was a prison without the guards to protect the inmates, who instead doll out selective punishment, which of course encourages even more amoral behavior.

mico writes:

Morality is subjective and 'socialization' here has an Orwellian meaning. A more accurate word would be indoctrination and the intent is not to produce "better" morality, but rather agreement on what morality is, even if people do not then embody it in their lives.

One example of the difference: compared to graduates of state-owned schools, private and (especially) home-schooled children in the US may well be more respectful of the lives and property of others and more likely to be in gainful employment, but I suspect they are much less likely to agree that the US Government is a legitimate institution and that the current case law surrounding the US Constitution is correct.

If 30-40% of the US population were taught in private schools and therefore came to believe that, for instance, the Commerce Clause has been misinterpreted in the FDR-era and laws that flow from that interpretation lack legal or moral force, the US government and social system as it currently exists would probably become untenable. Avoiding this is what is meant by the benefits of people being "socialized with sufficient consideration to the benefit to the community as a whole".

And to not sound like a bitter libertarian, this sort of thing can make society as a whole completely untenable if views diverge too far. For instance imagine if 40% of the US population were raised to believe in the necessity of human sacrifice and the righteousness of slavery.

Societies like this tend to look like Nazi Germany or the USSR: they didn't use oppressive methods because they were strong; quite the contrary, they had to use oppressive methods to remain in power because they knew that large swathes of the population rejected their claim to legitimacy. A population that becomes too morally diverse is ungovernable; such a population that cannot be separated into multiple states with coherent borders can only be governed by brute force.

Mark V Anderson writes:

I find it strange that Bryan's quote of himself talked about morality and not socialization. They are certainly not the same thing.

But what he says holds for socialization too. And the comments are all good, showing that individual parents would probably have more incentive to socialize the child above the current level that public schools do.

Tracy W writes:

A couple of problems with this:

Firstly, let's do a substitution:
"In making these decisions, the school would consider the socializing influence of education as it affects the school itself (e.g. better-behaved or more future-oriented children). But it would be unlikely to give sufficient consideration to the benefit to the community as a whole of having young people who obey the rules of the game. As a result, children would probably be undersocialized."

Secondly, did the suffragettes or the black power movement, or the HIV-treatment activists obey "the rules of the game"? How about Adam Smith or Charles Darwin, or Mary Wollenstonecraft? Or, to pick on even more mass movements, the people who moved out to the New World, or overthrew the Berlin Wall?

I think there can be a reasonable case that society benefits from people who are insufficiently socialised. Indeed, arguably parents and schools over-socialise kids because they only care about how it affects themselves (better-behaved, future-orientated) and not about the benefits to the wider community from having rules breaking. I'd be interested in having an argument with anyone who wants to defend the claim that kids are undersocialised. (I think there's something to be said for the undersocialised claim, but it's not a slam dunk.)

Tracy W writes:


Firstly you are assuming that schools (of any sort) can cause their attendees to strongly believe any particular view (as opposed to pay lip-service to it.) This does not seem believable in light of history. For example, the gay rights movement didn't start off with schools teaching that homosexuality was fine.

Secondly, if a large swathe of society doesn't believe something, then society can adjust to incorporate that belief. As happened with the civil rights movement, feminism, the American Revolution.

Finally, if 30-40% of society believed that human sacrifice and slavery were necessary then that indeed would be very dangerous, but, well, how would we get from here to there? How many parents sending their kids to a private school would keep on doing so if their kids came home talking about the benefits of human sacrifice and slavery? Compared to how many would whip their kids out at in a moment and maybe even start protesting outside the school about their lousy teachings? There seems an ample selfish motive for this: your kids know where you live.

mico writes:

Tracy W: I believe the assumption that children adopt moral values they are taught is well justified. Religion, for instance, very rarely transmits among adults but very easily from parents to children. That doesn't mean these values never change or are attenuated in any way, but your point about gay marriage is like saying that childhood indoctrination has nothing to do with the spread of religion because Europe has a renaissance. Yes, there was an internal doctrinal dispute among people who took 99% of their shared moral kernel for granted.

Society adjusting to accommodate the belief that the New Deal is unconstitutional means the collapse of the existing US governmental and social system, though indeed not necessarily its replacement by pure anarchy. Civil war is precisely one possible outcome.

You misunderstood my point which was not that the US population is likely to start supporting human sacrifice if state education is abolished. My point is that if accepted morality of groups who are subject to a single state drifts far enough apart those groups will no longer be able to peacefully tolerate one another. If everyone can teach their own morality to their children it is unlikely that a single American nationality morality will endure indefinitely; indeed you will instead see drift. At least some of these drifts will be in non-libertarian directions.

Note that I am not defending the US of state education as an indoctrination tool as such. I find it creepy at best and deeply immoral at worst. Just to point out that as an engineering tool it performs a function and the consequences of no longer performing that function are not necessarily uniformly good.

Mark V Anderson writes:

Tracy -- Actually I believe the gay rights movement (at least in the last 20 years or so) is pretty much a result of school propaganda. I'm sure that public schools teachers believe that being gay is a normal lifestyle to a much greater degree than the populace as a whole. And that attitude has transferred to the kids, to the extent that it is now kewl to be gay.

There is good and bad in this. But I do think the difference in 20 somethings attitudes towards gays and 50 somethings attitudes is mostly due to the different propaganda they got in the schools.

Tracy W writes:

Mico: if you're talking about moral values that go beyond lip service, no your assumption isn't well-justified. Indeed, it's flat-out wrong. For example, for centuries and centuries most of Europe was professedly Christian, yet how of those Christians lived their lives according to the ideals of the Sermon on the Mount? Even now I know a fair few serious Christians who worry deeply about the number of Christians who profess belief but don't live at all according to the standards (note, I'm somewhere on the atheist/agnostic sector).

Bryan Caplan in his book "Reasons to Have More Kids" summarises the research as, once you control for genes, parental upbringing influences what religion adults say they belong to, but not things like how often they attend church/temple/etc.

Society adjusting to accommodate the belief that the New Deal is unconstitutional means the collapse of the existing US governmental and social system, though indeed not necessarily its replacement by pure anarchy. Civil war is precisely one possible outcome.

Civil war is also a possible outcome of an attempt to enforce a common morality on everyone. See for example the English Civil War, which, despite how I've named it, started when Charles I attempted to enforce a Common (Anglican) Prayer Book on the Scots. The Scots revolted, so Charles I called an English Parliament to fund an army to defeat the Scots, and then things got worse.

Anyway, I doubt that a growing belief that the New Deal is unconstitutional means the collapse of the existing government and social system, any more than a growing belief that, hey, women have rights too, did. A gradual, or even a rapid, reform and alteration is an entirely possible outcome, such as Rogernomics and Ruthansia resulted in in NZ.

If everyone can teach their own morality to their children it is unlikely that a single American nationality morality will endure indefinitely

I hadn't noticed a single American morality in the first place. Indeed, I can't think of a single country in the world that has a single national morality. But I can think of a number of disastrous results from attempts to enforce a common morality on a nationality.

Tracy W writes:

Mark Anderson: 20 years ago was 1994.

Decriminalisation of homosexuality happened long before that in most Western countries (albeit with a higher age of consent), eg Switzerland in 1942, Sweden in 1944, England and Wales in 1967, East Germany in 1968, West Germany and Canada in 1969, California in 1975. (Incidentally, one plus of the Soviet Revolution in 1917 is that they decriminalised homosexuality). See

Correct me if my maths was wrong, but those dates are earlier than 1994.

As for differences between the attitudes of people in their 20s and people in their 50s, my parents are in their 60s and for as long as I can remember they have always being totally fine with homosexuality. I don't think they got that attitude from propaganda at high school in the 1960s, I think they got it from being exposed to gay liberation writing and thinking at university after high school.

mico writes:

I can't tell if you are deliberately missing the wood for the trees. Europe in say the 1400s had a set of moral precepts which, while not necessarily based in scripture (all of them were justified by scripture by those defending them, though with what honesty and accuracy one can debate), were broadly accepted even despite the fact that they were violently rejected in other times or other places. To take one that strikes us today as very strange, it was considered acceptable to plunder a besieged city that was taken by storm and rape and slaughter the population as desired. Another was that atheists and apostates could be executed.

If you believe there is no similar phenomenon in the United States today I suggest it is because you have lived your whole life in the United States and are not really aware of the existence of a world outside it, excluding perhaps a few of the most Americanised Western European capitals. America, like Christendom, Islamdom, the Soviet Union, and any other society has some topics of internal moral controversy, but their internal differences are tiny compared to the chasms that separate them from one another.

There are large numbers of people out there who believe that the USSR was a good thing and should be brought back (in the most explicit form they win about 20% in the Russian federal elections), and there are muslims who believe that indeed atheists and apostates should still be executed, who control whole countries equipped with nuclear weapons. These are extremely marginal views in the US, but the difference between you and those who hold them is not that they are stupider than you - they are not - it is that they received very different educations.

The existence of large numbers of anti-New Dealers, like the existence of large numbers of anti-slavers or anti-monarchists, has a good chance of resulting in civil war whereby the anti-New Dealers try to violently wipe out the pro-New Dealers; you have probably noticed that there are very few pro-monarchists or pro-slavers left in the US today, even though those have been majority positions in the past. Alternatively it might happen peacefully, or at least "peacefully". The Civil Rights movement is a good example of ostensibly lawful changes that were accompanied by a large amount of street violence crossing at the edges into guerilla warfare. Most peacefully of all, it happens simply by the dominant faction taking control of the education of the next generation of their opponents, like a colonial power wiping out the native language by making everyone learn English at school. Or for an example closer to home for you, wiping out, say, German and Italian by making people speak English at school...

A society with two (or more) very contradictory moral groups is unstable; it will either split into multiple societies or one of those moral groups will conquer and destroy the others, peacefully or otherwise.

Tracy W writes:

Mico: so, the Soviets had control of the education system there from the 1920s to the 1980s, and after all of that, by your estimate some 80% of the Russian population still doesn't think that the Soviet Union was a good thing. (And note that the 20% might have motivations for their vote independent of their schooling).

And, according to you, medieval Europeans were fine with people plundering conquered cities, and murdering and raping the population, in utter violation of Jesus Christ's moral teachings, and despite there not really being a schooling system in medieval Europe.

If you think that these two examples are evidence for people getting their morality from schooling, what on earth could possibly strike you as evidence against it?

Note: language acquisition is different to morality. It's generally much faster to change one's moral views than to acquire a new language to fluency. (I admit a couple of my friends from high school are exceptions to this general rule.)

mico writes:

Clearly the efficacy of schooling (or any other indoctrination - the state school just replaced the state church) has an efficacy lying somewhere between 0 and 1.0. The 20% of people actively voting for the CPR (CPUSSR) is rather higher than in the United States. Meanwhile successor Putin, with currently I believe an 80% approval rate, is rather closer to Gorbachev than he is to Obama.

Your point that Europeans were not "real" Christians is just irrelevant. It would only be a rebuttal if the Church were teaching them to be "real" Christians which it was not. One interesting thing about the Reformation is that the movement was largely a response to more people realising that the official indoctrination had diverged significantly from the source texts to which the indoctrinators based their legitimacy - that is, it was a reactionary legitimist movement.

Similarly, the growing unpopularity of the USSR was more likely a result of its divergence from Marx and Lenins' empirical predictions rather than a rejection of their morality. If Communism had worked as Marx and Lenin predicted I doubt that the Soviet Union would have collapsed just because the GULAG is considered immoral by bourgeois liberals.

As for quickly changing moral views - what? Do you know anyone who changed their moral views? As in, a secular democrat who became an Islamic fundamentalist or something, not just switching sides on a tiny intra-US social issue (especially if it came with a switch of social environment from being surrounded by supporters of Red Team to Blue Team)? Granted they exist, but the chances of actually meeting one without trying are essentially negligible.

Tracy W writes:

Mico: you appear to be muddling up "people have different cultures" with "children adopt the moral attitudes they are taught [at school]." The two are different ideas: I dispute the latter idea, not the former.

I note that you don't cite any examples of people getting their moral attitudes through schooling in response to my criticism of your first two.

As for the Reformation: in the 19th century in England, so four centuries after the Reformation, J. S. Mills could write

Yet it is scarcely too much to say that not one Christian in a thousand guides or tests his individual conduct by reference to those laws. The standard to which he does refer it, is the custom of his nation, his class, or his religious profession. He has thus, on the one hand, a collection of ethical maxims, which he believes to have been vouchsafed to him by infallible wisdom as rules for his government; and on the other, a set of every-day judgments and practices, which go a certain length with some of those maxims, not so great a length with others, stand in direct opposition to some, and are, on the whole, a compromise between the Christian creed and the interests and suggestions of worldly life. To the first of these standards he gives his homage; to the other his real allegiance.
(chapter 2, On Liberty).

As for changing moral views: this normally happens when no one is looking. Attitudes to gay rights for example have changed massively.

Tracy W writes:

Correction: J. S. Mills was writing 300 years after the English Reformation, not 400.

David J. Balan writes:

Thanks for the shoutout Bryan!

Before this blog post I had not known about the argument by Ann Dryden Witte, but it appears to be more or less identical to the one that I made in that paper years ago. And I still find the logic compelling; an individual school does not internalize the benefits of education toward unselfishness, and a public school system does, and this constitutes a reason to think that public school systems will place more emphasis on unselfishness. Many familiar economic arguments are of this form.

Bryan's response is to correctly point out that private school students are not obviously more selfish than are public school students, and are likely less so. The problem with this point is that contemporary private school education is pretty much all ideological in nature, mostly religious. Say what you want about religious eduction (and I have plenty to say, most of it bad!), it is not about teaching narrow individual selfishness.

But contemporary advocates of school choice do not only want to replace public education with non-profit ideological education (which, again, has lots of problems of its own); many of them also favor the introduction of for-profit schools. Those schools would only have a reason to educate for non-selfishness to the extent that doing so was profitable, and it would only be profitable if it was demanded by parents (or by the students themselves).

I think there is reason to doubt that these motives would prove sufficient for corporate schools to educate for non-selfishness; clearly some parents would not value it, and would send their kids to "selfish" schools. This would make it harder for everyone else to send their own kids to unselfish ones, even if that was their preference. But in any case, a public school system would have all of the parent-generated motives to educate for non-selfishness present in for-profit education plus the additional effect of internalizing of the social externality.

As with everything else of importance, this issue has been treated in depth by The Simpsons.

The education material did not make it into the published version of that paper. But the paper, co-authored with excellent Stephen Knack, did come out in the Journal of Comparative Economics in 2012.

Tracy W writes:
And I still find the logic compelling; an individual school does not internalize the benefits of education toward unselfishness, and a public school system does,

I think that, if anything, an individual school has more internalisation of the benefits of education towards unselfishness than a public school system does.

Selfish kids are more of a problem for an individual school teacher in their own classroom than they are for a bureaucrat in an office on the other side of town. An individual school teacher has more of an impact on their own principal and school than they do on the bureaucrats running a centralised system (after all, the bureaucrats are getting feedback, generally contradictory, from every educational crank and disgruntled school employee in the country.)

Obviously, educational bureaucrats have an interest in there being future good teachers to employ, but against that, it's not their money at stake if the school system goes wrong. And it's a very distant interest, compared to that of a teacher struggling with selfish kids in their own classroom.

I think you're committing the nirvana fallacy, comparing a real-world individual school to an ideal-world public school system.

Duncan Frissell writes:

"Were there no other reason for home schooling, the 'rich social life' of the Public Schools would be reason enough."

-- "Teach Your Own" by John Holt

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