Bryan Caplan  

The Case Against Education vs. Libertarian Education Reform

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Libertarian education reformers have long argued that education is great, but education plus market reforms is even better.  The Case Against Education in contrast, argues that the education industry is more like government-sponsored football stadiums: Government support is good for the industry, but bad for society.  Here's an excerpt from the book's final chapter, "Five Chats on Education and Enlightenment."


Frederick [fictional character who writes for the Wall St. Journal and blogs for the Chronicle of Higher Education]: You make your reforms sound pragmatic, but isn't libertarian ideology right below the surface?

Bryan: It's complicated. My heterodox views on education long precede my interest in political philosophy. I've believed in something like signaling since kindergarten.

Frederick: [ironic] Strangely enough, the facts all fit the theory you cooked up when you were five.

Bryan: I had no "theory" in kindergarten. Just two epiphanies:

First, I had to excel academically in order to get a good job when I grew up.

Second, I would never use most of my book learning on the job.

Though it took me years to see the tension between these two epiphanies, I (crudely) reinvented the signaling wheel sometime in junior high. Armed with my crude signaling theory, I gamed the system, working as little as possible to get A's in all the classes I deemed boring
and useless.

Frederick: So you were a rebel, not a reformer?

Bryan: Right, until my senior year of high school. Once I discovered libertarianism, education reform came naturally. Why on earth should government subsidize socially wasteful education?

Frederick: Then you admit your education reforms are ideologically driven.

Bryan: No. I only admit that my political philosophy--or "ideology" if you prefer--sways
the questions I ask.

Frederick: But surprise surprise, the facts are in perfect harmony with your ideology.

Bryan: Hardly. Libertarians rarely challenge the beloved education sector. Instead, they promise, "Free markets will make education even better."

Frederick: Well, why don't you say that?

Bryan: Because I disbelieve it. It goes against everything I've seen. I've attended both public and private schools. They're cut from the same cloth.


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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Ryan Murphy writes:

Tax education.

LD Bottorff writes:

Congratulations on the publicity you're getting in the WSJ (https://www.wsj.com/articles/review-deciding-against-the-paper-chase-1516044311 gated, of course). I look forward to reading the book.
I would be tempted to ask Frederick if his questions are prompted by his ideology.

Floccina writes:

30 years ago I believed in school vouchers, latter I believed not in vouchers but privatization but the data kept coming in that vouchers and private schools seemed to make little difference either way. So now I think we should try to cut spending back to 1960 levels, about 1/3 of today's, because more than that seems to make no difference so why not save a buck.

Schooling has been pushed as a solution to many social ills (crime for example) but I think we would do much better to attack those social ills more directly. For crime more and better police. For poverty allow cheaper housing to be built. Also for poverty maybe a UBI. For education maybe some better PBS shows or youtube videos and libraries. Etc.

Fred Anderson writes:

Ryan Murphy says, "Tax education."

There is an argument that we already do.

Two observations:
(1) According to the Tax Policy Center, the top 20% of income earners pay 84% of personal income taxes. (The top 40% pay 97%.)
(2) 33.4% of Americans age 25 or older had completed four years of college or more in 2016 according to the Census Bureau. (But the National Student Clearinghouse reports that it takes 5.1 years of academic enrollment on average to earn the typical Bachelor's degree.)

Unproven linkage; being in the top 33% by education gets you into the top 33% by income. Probably an awful lot of young people are going into debt to pay for college on the blithe assumption that this one is true.

If they're right, then "Tax the Rich" may approximate "Tax the Educated." And transfers to the disadvantaged may mostly amount to transfers of the resulting tax take to the uneducated.

A cynic could get a bitter chuckle seeing liberal campuses aim that shotgun quite squarely at their own toes.

James Pass writes:

Frederick's strategy - to expend the minimum effort to get A's in the classes he finds useless and boring - seems reasonable. It's certainly better than failing the classes.

But hold on. Many if not most high school students find subjects such as mathematics, science, history and languages useless and boring. What is the libertarian approach? Who gets to decide what is useless and boring?

Most colleges now require three years of high school math: Algebra I, Geometry, and one higher-level course such as Algebra II, Statistics or Data Analysis. Some educators argue that even in trade jobs like construction, plumbing, manufacturing, electrician, equipment maintenance, car repair, customer service, etc., solid skills in basic math and language are beneficial. Or, at the very least, three years of high school math acts as a signal for "grit" and critical thinking skills.

But perhaps Caplan's book focuses less on high school education (which generally sticks to the basics) and more on college education, which starts to get more advanced (and expensive). There is no doubt that lots of kids are now "required" to get college degrees even if advanced academic education is not useful in their careers. Moreover, even in college programs that seem to be a perfect fit - such as an education degree for prospective teachers - there is a lot of waste. And don't get me started on the wasteful education and training requirements for some licensed vocations.

Frederic writes:

"I've attended both public and private schools. They're cut from the same cloth."
Gotta disagree for Summerhill- and Sudbury-style schools.

My kindergarten epiphanies were:
First, I want to learn as much as humanely possible about all the things I am interested in.
Second, I want a happy childhood.

From my experience, those 2 things rule each other out in conventional schools, but not in free schools, where you can choose courses and teachers at one's discretion.

Anonymous writes:

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Joe writes:

I often wonder if there is another possible negative eternality to education; creativity.

I don't know how much empiric have been done, but I do remember reading the abstract of study that claimed adderall reduced creativity in people who were classified as very creative.

Moreover, there is the stereotype of school destroying creativity and artists learning outside of school.

It is also interesting that I seem to see less art er capita then I'd expect in highly educated test centric countries like Singapore.

I'm still only on chapter three of your book so maybe it does talk about it, but interesting to think about nonetheless.

Frederic writes:

@Joe
Summerhill/Sudbury-type schools are known to produce an unusually high amount of creative pupil (that's what you get in a free environment, I guess).

dlr writes:

I've got a comment on the book:

Figure 3.3 “Ability-Corrected Earnings for College Majors vs. High School Grads” seems like it should be adjusted to reflect four years of foregone income and four years of $$$ tuition for the college students: it would make the apparent pay-off much less attractive -- and much more realistic.

Or put in another figure that does show Figure 3.3 adjusted for average tuition say at the mid line state school and 4 years of average high school graduate salary foregone : you'd be doing a lot of people a big service if you did. I think leaving out those two items when you crunch the numbers makes college look much more attractive than it actually is .


Or put it in terms the average high school student (or their parents) can use : how many years of 100% of their excess earnings from going to college does it take to pay off their student loan ? I suspect that for history and education majors, et al, the answer might be 'your entire career' : ie, when they count all the costs, they are actually reaping zero excess gains from actually going to college.

Which is completely opposite to the take away message you get from that figure, and that bothers me. You could be completely right, and tuition and four years foregone salary are trivial, orders of magnitude smaller than a 20 or 30 percent bump per year of going to college for someone who is going to take an easy major. But you don't ever address the issue anywhere, so I'm left wondering -- and with the concern that your conclusion is wrong.

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