Bryan Caplan  

Education: Free Matters

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Robin continues our exchange on the origins of educational signaling.  Here's my point-by-point reply, followed by a broader observation.  Robin's in blockquotes; I'm not.

Where Bryan disagrees is that he sees government as the main agent pushing school. He says it wasn't individual workers who were unwilling to adopt industrial work habits, it was government regulators:


And he says it wasn't individuals who were eager to send their kids to school, it was government:


This makes it sound like I think government is ramming education down the throats of a hostile populace.  But I'm saying something utterly different: Governments push education because they want to be popular.  The average citizen croons to the music of lavish public funding for education.  But due to Social Desirability Bias, there's a chasm between how governments spend the public's dollars and how individuals would spend their private dollars. 

But these just don't match the history I've read. For example, In the US there was a lots of other school funding before government took over:

The school system remained largely private and unorganized until the 1840s. Public schools were always under local control, with no federal role, and little state role.
The 1840 census indicated that of the 3.68 million children between the ages of five and fifteen, about 55% attended primary schools and academies. (more)

Local, state, and federal government all sound like government to me.  All three strive for popularity, and hence deliver policies that sound good even if they work poorly.  Inter-governmental competition restrains state and local governments, but only weakly, because they're all non-profits.

In any case, even if there were zero government subsidies in the 1840s, I've never claimed signaling was the whole story of education.  I can easily believe modernization raised the value of literary and numeracy, and I can easily believe literacy and numeracy are easier to learn in school than on the job.  What puzzles me is (a) all the impractical coursework that accompanies literacy and numeracy, and (b) the fact that the labor market rewards both kinds of coursework.

On typical worker reluctance to follow orders, see Greg Clark's classic "Why Isn't the Whole World Developed? Lessons from the Cotton Mills":

Moser, an American visitor to India in the 1920s, is even more adamant about the refusal of Indian workers to tend as many machines as they could "... it was apparent that they could easily have taken care of more, but they won't ... They cannot be persuaded by any exhortation, ambition, or the opportunity to increase their earnings." In 1928 attempts by management to increase the number of machines per worker led to the great Bombay mill strike. Similar stories crop up in Europe and Latin America.

The key problem: As I've said before, I'm happy to admit formal schooling teaches kids to submit.  But so does formal employment.  The workers Clark describes sound like they have little experience with either.  So this passage is an exceedingly poor argument for the socialization advantages of school over work.

Broader point: Robin has repeatedly criticized socially wasteful spending on both education and medicine.  But he's reluctant to assign governments much blame for the waste.  Why?  I've known Robin for almost twenty years, and still can't fathom the source of his reticence.  Consider these simple points:

1. We've got plenty of estimates of demand elasticity for both education and medicine.  Both imply that reducing the price of education and medicine to zero sharply increases quantity demanded. 

2. And what do governments do?  They strive to give education and medicine to broad segments of the population, free of charge. 

3. This hardly means education and medicine would vanish without government subsidies.  But there's overwhelming reason to think cutting the subsidies would lead to much lower consumption of both.  Indeed, without the subsidies it's entirely possible that remaining spending would no longer be socially wasteful.

I must have asked Robin this before, but I'll ask him again: Which of these three points, if any, do you reject?

COMMENTS (3 to date)
Dangerman writes:

I thought Robin's position was more "the government is *people*, it's US!" than "the government isn't to blame."

Glen Smith writes:

If the signal model of education is correct, most of the cost of that education is on the signaler (the person who gets the proper tickets punched). Enter government, now, at least in the seen, more of that cost can be outsourced.

Philo writes:

You say it is odd that Robin Hanson is "reluctant to assign governments much blame for the waste[ful spending on education and medical care]." 'Blame' seems the wrong word here (for one thing, such moral terminology should be applied only to individual people). I think your point is that governmental activity is a substantial part of the cause of this waste. Does Robin deny that?

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