Thursday, February 2, 2012

Tune in, Turn on, Drop out

By my reckoning, I'm a little late to the party of criticizing the latest State of the Union address. Among the other... let's call them "bold"... policy suggestions forwarded by the President, the one that caught my attention concerned mandatory schooling.

To paraphrase, the POTUS suggested it might be wise for states to raise the minimum dropout age to 18, thereby increasing education rates. Much of the discussion on this point (at least on those blogs I follow) concern classroom externalities, the nature of the assumed linear relationship to formal education and earnings, or to this or that signaling model. These and points like them are very interesting and contain valid criticism, but when I see popular policy nostrums, I fancy that I've trained myself well enough to ask which euvoluntary principles are being violated by the status quo. I confess that I have yet to rest on any particular answer.

With that in mind, let's take them one by one and see what floats.
1) Conventional ownership: the common law readily identifies that minors emphatically do not have sovereignty over the disposal of their time. Schools have long acted in loco parentis, emphasis on "loco", suggesting that children are not, to pilfer M. Friedman's line, free to choose. This hints at de jure authority for policymakers to do as they will in the child's interest. I would further argue that many people see this argument res ipsa loquitur (I only added that last bit to complete the Triforce of Legal Latin).

2) Conventional capacity to buy or sell: here, we're investigating whether or not a) minors have the conventional right to trade their labor (hint, we have a pile of legislation on the books ensuring they're stripped of these rights) and b) whether or not educational organizations have the capacity to foist their products on the unwilling (please feel free to argue the validity of a comparison to health provision mandates in the comments). The question I ask myself on this issue is something like: "are minors at liberty to agree to labor contracts and at what point do schools lose the authority to sell their product against the will of their customers?" I agree that this is an odd way to frame the question, but I am an odd man. I am thinking of getting a tattoo that reads (2n-1).

3) Absence of regret: I think this is the key issue here. Most of the fodder trotted out to support mandatory education consists of tales of woe sung by regretful middle aged lower-income folks who realized only too late that they should have stayed in school. Policy therefore suggests wiser heads make their decisions for them. This is as close to a classic case of paternalism as it gets, perhaps even more literal than smoking restrictions or what have you. This is tantamount to the State acting as a disciplinary agent, a disapproving father who demands his wayward brat keep his butt in class. Again, it is not my intent to argue for or against the validity of this claim, but I do forward the proposition that this is something akin to the moral intuition at play.

4) No uncompensated externalities: this one is a little trickier. I find myself in the camp that there are positive externalities to basic literacy and numeracy (and basic economics, but that's probably just my bias speaking), so I think there is a case to be made for some level of universal education (empirical results may vary, consult your family physician before consuming any products), but it strikes me as reasonable to say that most of the benefit of completion of high school accrues to the individual. As long as the net productivity of the individual is above zero (not a particularly difficult pond to cross) then there is no externality. We might also argue about where exactly the margins lie, but again, I think much of the other blog commentary has done a pretty good job of addressing this point. I do want to simply point out the moral intuition, and I believe that intuition that gestures at externalities is mistaken.

5) No coercion by human agency: well, the decision to drop out is seldom done at gun- or knife-point, so I don't think anyone is making the claim that in America at least, parents are dragging their kids out of school to work the farm anymore. I might be wrong about that, so I'm open to counter-examples, but I'll shy away from dwelling on this point too much.

6) No coercion by circumstance: this is probably the big one, the one that gets hearts racing and blood a-pumping. Look, sometimes the reason people drop out is because, well, school is a terrible experience. I'd wager a non-modest sum that at least one reader of this blog knows at least one person who describes it as torture. For those people, moral intuition leads itself to little in the way of pity. Contrast this with the poor kid who has to get a job to feed her little brother once her mom got laid off and her dad is doing a nickel in San Quentin for simple possession. Here we have an actual tragic story, one that really does happen. Do we want to deny someone in an awful situation to a life without a proper education?

Now, I suspect that because at least one, perhaps more of the conditions of EE are violated with regards to the dropping out of the high schoolings, the median voter will feel at least a little justified in supporting at least some stricter dropout rules. It might be tedious to remind you at this point that exchange (or lack thereof), euvoluntary or not, is just, but something tells me that it might be worth mentioning yet again.

At any rate, if you believe that there is value in dissecting policy (or proposed policy) using this sort of moral intuition-checking, I encourage you to try it more regularly. I suspect that this sort of exercise can help isolate (and possibly provide counterarguments for) the underlying moral principles behind attempts to meddle.

Is education voluntary?
Is education euvoluntary?
What are the implications?

1 comment:

  1. I think a sounder policy to advocate might be something like "mandatory GED education for adults born after 1995". It accomplishes the goal of wanting to do more to help dropouts, but it doesn't necessarily prevent a child from dropping out to work and help provide for the family (much less drop out because they are completely uninterested in what high school is offering).

    To take a stab at discussion questions:

    In it's most basic form, education isn't voluntary. I never asked to learn how to speak, pickup small objects, or manipulate those objects by tracing them over a sheet of paper. But I don't really object to it be doing "by force" as it were. I've also never really been convinced that paternalism of a parent exercised over a child is morally reprehensible, where here I mean paternalism to be "substituting the parents preferences over decisions for the child's". If it isn't voluntary, it can't be euvoluntary.

    Now suppose we're looking at kids old enough to raise objections to schooling, and they're old enough that we aren't laughing at their objections. Now, if this age is less than 14 to 16, depending on what state you live in, you're still compelled to attend school. The kid may not be put in jail for truancy, but his parents might. We're holding a gun to parents' heads, not children's. So, it can't be euvoluntary in that case either.

    It's probably euvoluntary for adults that go to school. Since school is an "investment" activity, or at the very least supra-subsistent consumption, it's hard to imagine an opportunity where BATNAs can be objectionable.


Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?