Monday, April 15, 2013

Are Our Kids in America Learning in a Teenage Wasteland?

By now, I assume you've caught wind of the row over a spot on MSNBC about the link between collective responsibility and public school funding. If not, here's a partial transcript of the promo bumper that launched a thousand wagging fingers:
We have never invested as much in public education as we should have because we've always had kind of a private notion of children–'Your kid is YOURS! And totally your responsibility.'
We haven’t had a very collective notion of 'these are our children,' so, part of it is that we have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents, or kids belong to their families and recognize that kids belong to whole communities.
Once its everybody's responsibility and not just the household’s then we start making better investments.
If you're sensitive to Arnold Kling's oppressor-oppressed moral axis, you'd be not merely baffled by a strong negative reaction to these comments, you'd probably think that anyone who strongly disagreed might border on actual evil. Contrarily, if you're more prone to think along the freedom-coercion axis, these comments might sound like the friendly face of totalitarianism. The go-to conservative axis of civilization-barbarism can be best cast in a Hansonian farmer-forager frame here, with group child care being an artifact of a barbaric forager past. A hasty reading might have conservatives aligned with libertarians for this.

Here's a response piece by Harris-Perry (featuring Matt Welch!). I think she gets the disagreement mostly right, but watch with the following notions in mind: a) Kling's three-axes model (to get the moral intuitions) and b) deontology vs consequentialism.

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For euvoluntaryists, I think it's important to recognize that it's next to impossible to discuss anything related to children without getting into the realm of coercion. Children don't have agency in the eyes of The Law. Whether folks believe more infantilization is warranted or less, contract law does not recognize kids' ability to strike enforceable contracts (with a few exceptions). Now, it's a mighty leap from "transactions with kids can't be euvoluntary" to "therefore the state must intervene", but careful engagement with folks who hold what seem to be obtuse opinions must consider what the appropriate moral intuitions are. The commentary I've run into so far seems to mirror something closer to my own knee-jerk reaction than to somewhat more placid reflection.

It also occurs to me that there's a lot to be said for engaging these sorts of arguments on their merits rather than on morally orthogonal reasoning. If care-harm is the relevant axis, it should be pretty easy to show that there's plenty of harm in centralized public education. It beggars belief that the optimal policy zone for education is national, especially in a country as large and diverse as the United States.

Of course, I'm begging the question just a little bit. I'm sort of assuming that the burden of proof should be on folks who want to expand the taxation authority. I don't think they're quite convinced that the default should be private-until-proven-public. The Precautionary Principle seems to claim quite the opposite, really.

I should totally write that PP stuff up as a proper journal article. Hm.

Also, you're welcome for having not one but two songs stuck in your head now.

Edit to include a link to Arnold Kling's 3-axes model.

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