Thursday, March 14, 2013

Education is not Euvoluntary

Education is not euvoluntary.
(1) conventional ownership
The common law generally refuses to recognize children as rational agents. The UCC, a modernization of the old Law Merchant, makes any contract made with a minor avoidable by that minor. That's why when you're a kid, your parents always-always-always have to co-sign. If children are the principals, they sure as heck have no absence of agents. Parents, grandparents, truancy officers, DFHS case workers, teachers, good Samaritans, camp counselors, babysitters, coaches, clergy... it's probably fair to say that there aren't a lot of arms-length relationships in a child's life; most relationships are personal and paternalistic. This is especially true when it comes to education. To the extent that there is any conventional ownership in the realm of education, residual claimancy is held in trust: the primary guardian makes decision on the child's behalf (unless you live in, say, Germany in which case the state is more than happy to make all those decisions for you).

Does a lack of conventional agency imply anything about the provision of education? Kids aren't trusted to make their own decisions about their own education, but this doesn't appear on its own to suggest that the median voter should shoulder the decision calculus. Perhaps there is reason to turn the decision over to the electorate, but it doesn't seem to hinge on the self-ownership of children. At best, we might conclude that education allocation decisions ought revert the same way decisions about clothes, nutrition, and health are made: first to the parents, then if they're non compos mentis to the next of kin.

Education is not euvoluntary.
(2) conventional capacity to buy/sell
There still are a few rare markets in education. Upper middle class families can afford private tutors, nannies, and au pairs. For the rest of us, we shrug our shoulders and send our little tykes on the big ol' yellow bus, wheels goin' round and round to public school for twelve years of conformity training.

Here, I'm not so sure where I sit. I'm not all that convinced that this is such a big deal. Lithuanian schools are state-funded, but literacy rates there approach 100% and more importantly, I never once met a Lithuanian kid who seemed disaffected by school. Admittedly, I lived there just under a year so maybe I didn't get a close enough feel for how things worked. Still, I have a hunch that the problems the US appears to be having with primary education are less a problem with the exchange mechanism than with the delivery of services.

Fixing the problems might be easier and faster with freer exchange, more choice, but that's separable from the puzzle of how education went off the rails in the first place.

Education is not euvoluntary.
(3) absence of regret
This is how education went off the rails in the first place.

There's an odd habit of social engineering by statistical moments, as if statistics are somehow prescriptive instead of descriptive. National school performance rankings (read: the first moment of standardized test results) have become this weird contest, one bizarrely waged from Washington DC of all places. All in the name of not falling behind. Political elites talk of national economic performance in terms of competition, as if GDP figures were a pro wrestling belt. The US will surely regret it if China wins the World Championship Title at Econmania XVIII.

Political kayfabe. Cui bono, people?

This is false regret by proxy, but it's pretty easy to convince the median voter. After all, what sort of economics education is your typical voter more likely to get, Samuelsonian national-accounting macro or Hayekian spontaneous order? Do I even have to ask?

So yeah, sure, you'll regret it if you don't learn to read and write. It's a heck of a leap to go from that to NCLB.

Education is not euvoluntary.
(4) no uncompensated externalities
Basic literacy and numeracy has positive externalities. Elementary microeconomics probably does too. For everything else, it's hard to see any spillover effects. Yes, the world is a better place for high school graduates knowing the difference between Debussy and Camus (assuming that they retain this information), but for there to be external benefits, the student must provide services for which they are not compensated. I'm sorry to report that your ability to recall the Pythagorean Theorem doesn't much enhance my quality of living.

Now, there is an argument that keeping kids in school is sort of like state-funded day care for kids aged 5-16, and that in its absence, the streets would be all Lord of the Flies and that one episode of Star Trek with the kids who contract a fatal disease when they turn 17. This posits a false counterfactual. The alternative to state-provided education is not chaos, and it seems ludicrous to suggest that it might be.

Education is not euvoluntary.
(5) neither party coerced by human agency
Come on.

Education is not euvoluntary.
(6) neither party coerced by circumstance; the disparity in BATNAs is not "too large"
This one's good. There are some just terrible schools out there. One of the big fears about charter schools is that they will end up separating based on the wealth of the parents. Because that's obviously not the way it works already or anything.

But more to the point, you're kind of over a barrel if you want to stay illiterate in a free market. The costs are extremely high: you're basically destitute, reliant on what scant charity you can scrounge. Social programs reduce the opportunity cost of being uneducated, encouraging shirking on the margin. To make up for the shirking, school is mandatory for longer, which can breed further resentment. It's kind of a miracle that anyone ever emerges from such a hostile environment with anything approaching a love of learning still intact. Doubly so when modern school resemble nothing so much as a federal penitentiary these days, what with the armed guards and the metal detectors.

Education can be euvoluntary.
At least more euvoluntary than it is now. Getting there requires some muscular de-politicization. Education is not the natural ward of democracy, so alert parents should be particularly mindful of opportunities to thwart entrenched elites. The rise of MOOCs will allow homeschooling organizations to develop standard lessons using the material produced by the finest educators in the world. Those of us on the supply side can continue to make excellent videos and online lectures available at zero price to the customer. Continue to be creative. Wresting the euvoluntarity of education from the pee-chee folders of educational elites won't be easy, but it's eminently possible. Courage, people.

1 comment:

  1. Making excellent videos is a great idea. And I like how they have organized the process in Finland. When subjects are taught by such modulus, children don`t worry that they are behind, they just try their best and children are less stressed. My children like when I ask them to check the essay of their classmate ( this useful service helps with essays ) . It is very useful for them as it is a good opportunity to develop spelling and grammar also it teaches to honest and sincere. I am sure that if children try to teach someone they became experts of the topic we have.


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