Monday, April 16, 2012

Swirlies, Wedgies and Noogies, oh my!

If we take for granted that in a modern mixed economy, basic literacy and basic numeracy provides some positive externalities, it seems at least plausible to ask to what extent the public education system is an attempt to correct for a non-euvoluntary counterfactual state of the world.

One of the classic arguments for universal education is to bolster democracy. Only citizens with an adequate grasp of civics, the content of the Constitution and a passing appreciation of history will have a sufficiently complete cognitive toolkit to tolerate enfranchisement. Ignoring what I know of the past 60 years' worth of Public Choice scholarship, I will suppress a grimace long enough to grant this premise.

A less classic argument, but one that perhaps strikes closer to the anvil of plausibility is socialization. Humans are social creatures who need to learn the rules of the game when it comes to interacting with peers. Mandatory schooling may well be necessary then to preserve the very fabric of society itself! Note here of course that I write "schooling" and not "education"--this argument cuts more for recess than for keep-your-butt-at-the-desk time. Yes, in order to better mimic typical middle class working conditions, you need an appropriate mix of peers and arbitrarily-chosen supervisors, but there seems to me to be only a tenuous connection between learning Tennyson and learning that snitches get stitches.

These are genuinely interesting considerations, and they tend to receive plenty of attention in standard discussions, but underpinning most paternalistic policy lies a presumption that the counterfactual is non-euvoluntary. Now, I'm not sure I can adequately describe what the next most likely alternative to state-run education is, but I suspect it's not mass illiteracy, with goon-like children running rampant in the streets. I also have my doubts that it would be the gentle, Aristotelian paradise of eager young minds lapping at the font of wisdom under private tutelage as asserted by proponents of unfettered school choice. I confess to being on board with the idea that shifting to more open choice in education would be a marginal improvement, but I have to admit that I have no clear idea of what the outcome equilibrium would resemble. At any rate, it would be a mistake to delve too deeply into this issue here, mostly because it's so highly contingent on institutional structure. What we ought concern ourselves with here is the presumptive regret condition and a modicum of browbeating.

"You'll regret not getting an education." Well, at the risk of exposing my priors, duh. Of course. Even models that rely heavily on signaling have to grant that there's at least some monodirectional causality to the education-to-labor-market-outcome relationship. People who drop out of high school very often express what appears to be genuine regret. Children and teenagers, on the margin, are quite bad about discounting appropriately. Adults recognize this and therefore, under whatever ex post justification they find appropriate (literacy externalities, political externalities, socialization, labor market outcomes et al), feel comfortable forcing all children to attend school until some appropriate age of agency (typically age 16 in the United States, except under certain circumstances of extreme situational duress). In effect, what's happened is that the regret condition has been traded for the coercion condition.

And boy howdy, is it ever coercive. On the macro scale, chronic truancy can land a child in juvenile detention, not an especially appealing outcome. On the micro scale, school is a string of indignities, especially concentrated in the junior high school years. Systematic humiliation, usurped personal sovereignty, panopticonal scrutiny (particularly these days with full-time police supervision in many schools) and rigorously enforced conformity assail children mercilessly.

I must admit that I'm still a bit flummoxed in some regards. It seems to me, by introspection anyhow, that a well-functioning modern economy relies heavily on some degree of conformity and that it's entirely possible that on the margins, this conformity could effectively be taught (and retained) in a schoolhouse setting, and it's also quite possible that actual (marginal, of course) learning could occur in the confines of a classroom, but it's not at all clear to me whence the moral intuition that state intervention is in the set of reasonable alternatives. Here's what the status quo logic sounds like to me:

  1. Society benefits from having educated citizens
  2. Citizens themselves benefit from being educated
  3. People regret not obtaining an education
  4. Therefore, the state shall provide a mandatory education
There might occasionally be some arguments that invoke market failures in there somewhere, but I have a hard time reconciling market failure arguments with reasonable empirical regularities. Still, even if I find the market failure arguments compelling, it still seems to me that in this particular battle of EE conditions, ex post regret and maybe (though weakly) uncompensated externalities outweigh coercion by human agency. It's better to force kids to go to school and take boring classes, face being picked on and suffer torment from occasionally incompetent and periodically cruel teachers and administrators than to offer them other alternatives (heck, the alternative of simply entering the workforce has been outlawed by fiat). Is regret really that powerful, or is it just in this instance? How high are the stakes here? What is so non-euvoluntary about the laissez-faire alternative that justifies the clearly non-euvoluntary institution of mandatory state-run primary education?

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