On the utter fatuity of rational man

by Maria on August 5, 2011

Look, most of us have met a celebrity, burbled something insanely stupid, and lived to regret it.

When I was a teenager, I met Mats Wilander and had the bright idea of giving him my autograph, instead of the other way around. That way he’d remember me. Cringe. Another time, in college, I met Umberto Eco and blurbled away to him about smoking for several minutes until the postgrads he was there to speak to managed to get a word in. Why, only last month, I was introduced to Alastair Darling and asked him if he’d ever been to DC.

Maybe that’s what happened to the girl from Reason.tv. In this video clip (spotted on BoingBoing a couple of days ago) Matt Damon responds to her assertion that he works hard because acting is insecure, therefore teachers would be better if their ‘incentives’ were similar. Coz it’s in their interest to, see?

Asking a man who financially never needs to work again to agree that the fear of not having a job is what motivates him/teachers is head-scratchingly silly.

By the by, in the BoingBoing comments, Cory Doctorow also makes a beautiful case for education as a public good:

Education is a public good. It is best supplied and paid for by the group as a whole, because no individual or small collective can produce the overall social benefit that the nation can provision collectively.

Education doesn’t respond well to market forces because many of the social goods that arise from education—socialization, a grounding in civics, historical context, rational and systematic reasoning—are not goods or services demanded by a market, but rather they are the underlying substrate that allows people to intelligently conduct transactions in a marketplace as well as establishing and maintaining good governance.

There is a long and wide body of evidence that people with wide, solid educational foundations that transcend mere vocational skills produce societies that are more prosperous, more transparent, healthier, more democratic—that attain, in short, all the things we hope markets will attain for us.

… But functional democracies require that all people—not just those who are already wealthy—are given the foundational knowledge that allows them to prosper and participate in the full range of social activities that make nations great.

Words to ponder.

{ 101 comments }

1

tomslee 08.05.11 at 1:33 pm

If you ask my wife, Matt Damon is a public good.

2

understudy 08.05.11 at 1:43 pm

and yet eduction in K-12 is not effective for a subsection of american students, primarily in poorer, generally urban school districts. Per pupil real spending has doubled in a generation, what has been the societal return for that large increase in spending? If we can’t measure the success or return on educational spending, what determines what the appropriate level of “investment” in education?

3

Alan Robinson 08.05.11 at 1:55 pm

I think there is an easier way to explain why education is a public good. Try to estimate the economic impact of elementary education. Obviously the economic return of elementary education and for example, being taught reading or basic addition and subtraction. The economic return won’t begin coming until at least 12 years after this is taught and continue for the person’s working life. So the net present value of something that happens from 12 years to 50 years in the future is likely to be relatively small today and to the child involved have little meaning. Complicating that value is dividing the value between what is learned in each step of an education from kindergarten to the final educational step of the individual. My hunch is that a good analysis is that the net present value of each step of an education is relatively modest, and econometric analysis would likely overestimate the value of the last educational step as it would not see the difference between someone who had good prepeation early and could advance the maximum amount at each level and end up at Harvard, and the person who had a poor foundation and never got past what is normaly learned in 8 years even though they completed 12.

The second problem is who makes the decision as to whether the value gained by educational spending is greater than cost as perceived by the person paying. If the person paying is the parent who beliees in the value of education, then they may be willing to pay for tuition or taxes. However, if it involves a non-parent, what is the value to them? If I have no children, what is the value to me of educating someone’s child. I get less benefit today form that expense that the cost of a can of Coke. This is also true among those who send children to private schools.

The easiest way to test this theory is to track voting on school bond and budget referendums by precinct and comparing that to the demographics of the precinct by age and proportion of children in private school. I leaned this lesson back in the 1970′s when working on school board and bond issues in Pennsylvania and am convinced that this difference still holds.

I should add that looking at the perceived net present value of “public goods” would get a similar results. People value what they use and not what others use. Furthermore, investments that have long time horizon’s like education, sewer systems, clean air, etc. are the hardest to sell to voters focused on comparing the value of everyday consumables to long lived public goods.

Finally, it worth looking at insurance markets for two types of insurance that make economic sense but are seldom bought due to their expense. Long-term disability and long-term care. Again, the up front cost is high and the perceived risk is very low.

4

ChasW 08.05.11 at 1:57 pm

Precisely. Though Adam Smith bemoaned the education of the indigent at the public expense on the grounds that it increased competition and reduced the earning power of ‘men of letters’ (perhaps proving that self-interest was more than just a theoretical concern).

Undermining Doctorow’s thesis , however, I presume that this interviewer was reasonably highly educated?

5

hmm 08.05.11 at 2:09 pm

Wait a second. “Education doesn’t respond well to market forces because” education promotes the “underlying substrate that allows people to intelligently conduct transactions in a marketplace…” I guess the market for journalists may not place any importance on, “socialization, a grounding in civics, historical context, rational and systematic reasoning…” I have to assume this position is supported purely by anecdote and not empirical data, since the most desirable US colleges are private institutions subject to market forces and they still draw students from around the world.

6

John Whitfield 08.05.11 at 2:11 pm

According to a letter in the Guardian a while back, Francis Bacon wrote that ‘one of the chief causes of seditions in a state is “breeding more scholars than preferment can take off”.’

Peter Turchin calls this ‘elite overproduction’. He believes it’s one of the reasons dynamic, empire-building states become decadent and conflict-ridden.

Sedition can be a public good, too, I guess.

7

elm 08.05.11 at 2:17 pm

I presume that this interviewer was reasonably highly educated?

She works for reason.tv. I had assumed she was a libertarian (U.S. sense).

8

Rob Hunter 08.05.11 at 2:26 pm

Why would the interviewer’s educational attainment undermine Doctorow’s thesis? Presumably she is the beneficiary — directly or indirectly — of public education and its attendant social benefits that Doctorow describes.

9

noen 08.05.11 at 2:43 pm

The same people who brought you “smoking is good for you” and “CO2 is good for the planet” also brought you “why johnny can’t read”. They’re just greedy assholes who don’t want to pay for other people’s education, nothing more.

Just as there has never been any science behind the claim that tobacco is good for you (a claim that was actually made) or that global warming is a hoax. So there has also never been a “crisis in education”. It was all bullshit. It’s easy to cherry pick some study or cite some backwater shithole in Alabama as proof that our schools are failing. Those are of course invalid arguments that simply serve the broader purpose of letting the rich keep more of their money.

10

Ben 08.05.11 at 2:51 pm

Libertarians are often highly educated, but merely going through the process of higher education doesn’t ensure one incorporates the lessons being taught. Much like a nut going through digestion doesn’t ensure it won’t come out the same only with a much shittier view of the world.

11

derek 08.05.11 at 2:51 pm

Actors, like rock musicians, work according to “tournament rules”, where all the stars that never were are parking cars and pumping gas, but a tiny, highly visible minority are rich and famous. If libertarians want most teachers to work hard on a pittance and no guarantee of employment, like Matt Damon wannabes, they’re going to have to pay at least a few teachers $10m a year and put their faces on the cover of TIME magazine.

12

hartal 08.05.11 at 2:53 pm

Yes beautiful case. Is Doctorow’s point that broad education that transcends vocational training is a public good that the market under provides as individual monetary investment in it cannot be justified by the discounted income flow that it will make possible?

13

bh 08.05.11 at 2:58 pm

At the risk of sounding profoundly silly, I’d like to see Matt Damon enter politics. He’s a consistently articulate defender of mainstream liberalism, and he seems grounded enough to take advantage of his celebrity without being defined by it.

Cory’s comment is great, too. Good public schools are part of community in a way that can’t be reduced to a simple exchange of goods and services.

14

OneEyedMan 08.05.11 at 2:59 pm

@Derek
I would be happy to try the winner take all method you describe on teaching. That seems like an experiment worth trying.

@ Maria
It is hard to see how formal education of plumbers, barbers, and secretaries leads to the production of additional knowledge that they don’t profit from. The knowledge spillovers from the activities of typical workers that are not reflected in the prices of their wages seem minimal. So you have to make an argument from civics. But plenty of countries had well developed literacy, governments, and civil society before mass education, so I’m interested in hearing about those studies you mention. I’m concerned that the causality works in the other direction. That is that rich, safe, and prosperous people demand universal education.

15

Malaclypse 08.05.11 at 3:04 pm

It is hard to see how formal education of plumbers, barbers, and secretaries leads to the production of additional knowledge that they don’t profit from. The knowledge spillovers from the activities of typical workers that are not reflected in the prices of their wages seem minimal. So you have to make an argument from civics.

Or we could argue that, unless we want a caste system where we know from kindergarten who is destined to be a “plumber, barber, or secretary” and who is destined for presumably greater things, then we need to educate everybody.

16

elm 08.05.11 at 3:16 pm

OneEyedMan @ 9

But plenty of countries had well developed literacy, governments, and civil society before mass education

Can you give some examples? Absent mass public education, it’s hard to imagine a society having much social mobility or anything like an equitable distribution of income and wealth.

I’m concerned

If only there was a term for this sort of behavior.

17

Substance McGravitas 08.05.11 at 3:18 pm

But plenty of countries had well developed literacy, governments, and civil society before mass education

What are your examples and what were the literacy rates?

18

OneEyedMan 08.05.11 at 3:19 pm

@Malaclypse
I didn’t say that they didn’t benefit from education. I questioned if there were externalities from their education. If the overwhelming majority of the the benefits from education are private then there might still be a government role for financing education because of credit market failures, but not because it is a public good.

19

Ben 08.05.11 at 3:24 pm

@OneEyedMan

Did you not read or just not agree with the excerpt of the Doctorow essay?

“Education doesn’t respond well to market forces because many of the social goods that arise from education—socialization, a grounding in civics, historical context, rational and systematic reasoning—are not goods or services demanded by a market, but rather they are the underlying substrate that allows people to intelligently conduct transactions in a marketplace as well as establishing and maintaining good governance.”

A well-functioning marketplace and good governance are public goods, right?

20

Walt 08.05.11 at 3:24 pm

How could there not be large externalities from education? Surely you don’t believe that all of the benefits from literacy are private.

21

OneEyedMan 08.05.11 at 3:29 pm

@Substance McGravitas
Just check out the Wikipedia page for literacy. France had 80% literacy rate by 1850 and 50% by about 1800. The Kingdom of Sweden ( modern Sweden, Finland, and Estonia) had similarly high rates by 1800.

This cited <a href = "http://answers.google.com/answers/threadview?id=361434&quot;, title="link" discusses British and American literacy in the colonial period . A variety of numbers are quoted, but here is one "…U.S. adult male literacy in the eighteenth century was between 70-100 percent".

22

Tim Lacy 08.05.11 at 3:37 pm

I’m with BH: Damon should enter politics. We could do, and have done, worse.

Damon also gave a short speech at a gathering that included his mother (a public school teacher) and Diane Ravitch. The speech focused on public education as a universal good, distilled through Damon’s own experience as a public school student. …The speech isn’t perfectly logical, and he must’ve had some exceptional teachers, but the overall point can’t be missed. – TL

23

bh 08.05.11 at 3:37 pm

Those ‘successful’ societies without mass education had all meaningful civic contributions confined to elites. Within those elites — Rome is a good example — there was generally a strong concept of the education required for civic participation. Formal vocational education, as opposed to apprenticeships, is actually a much more modern concept.

Either (1) those elites were wrong about what was needed or (2) to expand that participation, you needed a similar program for everyone. Which was exactly the project of much educational reform over the past two centuries, thank God.

The degree of social regress being contemplated here is really gross.

24

r. laughlin 08.05.11 at 3:41 pm

internal motivation…
intrinsic vs. extrinsic…

25

OneEyedMan 08.05.11 at 3:42 pm

@Walt
I agree. A written and spoken language is a network technology, one that only has value if other people are also using it. So in that sense, there have to be some public benefits. My question was about the size of these benefits in comparison with the private benefits. Almost everyone could get by just fine if I didn’t speak and read English but I would suffer a great if I did not. That’s powerful motivation to learn to speak and read English

@Ben
I don’t agree with Doctorow that formal public education causes these things . Formal public education comes after marketplaces and good governance in many countries. I also don’t agree with his assessment of the market returns to education. If socialization means the ability to behave, take directions, and work in a team and rational and systematic reasoning means the ability to break large problems into smaller solvable ones then I definitely think that the market rewards those skills.

26

zamfir 08.05.11 at 3:42 pm

@oneeyedman, public primary education existed on a wide scale in the 18th century, mostly organized by municipalities and churches.

27

bh 08.05.11 at 3:49 pm

#19 — As Zamfir says, this is just bad history. There wasn’t the formal bureaucracy we have today, but there was widespread public education well before the industrial revolution. And what was covered was, again, not the ROI-maximization exercise that seems to be your only method for understanding of the world. I’m brought to mind, more than anything, the title of this thread.

28

Dragon-King Wangchuck 08.05.11 at 3:59 pm

OneEyed @16,

I suspect that the steady improvement in literacy rates in France post-Revolution might have something to do with mass education, so your example refutes your point.

As to colonial America – well one would expect high literacy rates for white males. Again, if you only consider white males to be the entire population, than colonial America also had mass education, just about universally available (to white males).

29

Ragweed 08.05.11 at 4:01 pm

Following up on Zamfir – in the US at least public primary education also had strong federal support and funding, if not funding in the sense that we think of it today. The Land Ordinance of 1785 set aside section 16 of each Township (Six-mile by six-mile blocks of land established by the ordinance) as reserved for the maintenance of public schools – setting aside a full square mile of land out of every 36. That this was one of the first things that the newly formed US government did under the articles of confederation demonstrates how much support there was for publicly supported education in the 18th century.

30

Tim Worstall 08.05.11 at 4:10 pm

It’s certainly been argued that the functional literacy rate in pre-state funded education England was higher than it is now……

BTW, Smith argued that there should be public funding of primary education and very strongly that tertiary education should be privately, by the student, funded. His contrast was between the Oxford and Glasgow U of his day.

31

Pete 08.05.11 at 4:14 pm

It’s amazingly how effective the idea that education might be a purely private good gets everybody sucked into a pointless discussion. Education has value for its own sake. Having a society in which education can be assumed has value. Moreover, the content of that education matters: it allows us to transmit those things which are valuable, not just which people pay for.

32

bh 08.05.11 at 4:14 pm

It’s certainly been argued that the functional literacy rate in pre-state funded education England was higher than it is now……

All sorts of dumb things have ‘been argued’, but every study I’ve ever seen says the exact opposite. I assume this relies on some sort of grumpy old man definition of “functional,” but even then it’s nonsense.

33

Ben 08.05.11 at 4:20 pm

@OneEye

Isn’t mass public education Pareto optimal compared to any other education scheme?

34

Uncle Kvetch 08.05.11 at 4:21 pm

I don’t agree with Doctorow that formal public education causes these things . Formal public education comes after marketplaces and good governance in many countries.

OEM, you slipped effortlessly from “mass education” to “formal public education” here. I have no idea what the “formal” is doing there, so we’ll put that to one side. But I will say that in the example of 19th-century France that you cite, there was indeed “mass” primary education provided by the Catholic Church (as zamfir alludes to in #20).

The degree of social regress being contemplated here is really gross.

Just wait until next year, when “Kill the Poor” goes from being a Dead Kennedys song to a Republican campaign slogan.

35

bh 08.05.11 at 4:23 pm

#24 — does this have a point, besides your feelings of superiority to the rest of the discussion?

36

Uncle Kvetch 08.05.11 at 4:24 pm

It’s certainly been argued that the functional literacy rate in pre-state funded education England was higher than it is now……

It’s also “certainly” been argued the Queen controls the international narcotics trade.

Sweet Jesus.

37

OneEyedMan 08.05.11 at 4:26 pm

I learned the definition of a public good as one which their is non-rivalry and non-excludability. Is that the definition others are working from? Education may produce positive externalities but it is both excludable and rivalrous (at least in part), so it is not a public good. As I said above, there also might be credit frictions that would generate too little education even without externalities. The question of the size of these externalities and credit frictions is empirical. Certainly there are benefits (and also costs) of non-pecuniary value like solidarity and shared culture. They do however have very real costs to produce. The question of if they are worth the price is a political one separate from the size and nature of those benefits.

@Dragon-King Wangchuck
Free universal public education in France didn’t start until the 1880′s. My understanding was that most education post revolution was funded by tuition, again not evidence of severe under-provision in the absence of universal free tuition.

@bh & @zamfir & @Uncle Kvetch
I apologize for the confusing language. I mean universal, mandatory, publicly funded public education. If I’ve gotten some or all of this wrong, I’m happy to be corrected about the historical record. Have a link for me to read? That said, I don’t see how church provided education is evidence in favor of mass literacy requiring the use of tax revenues to provide general education. That looks to me like private provision of educational services.

38

zamfir 08.05.11 at 4:32 pm

@unkle, no, the 18th. More formal state-sanctioned free primary education started in France in 1833, hence the 80% literacy rate in 1850. Primary education is everywhere really one of the earliest of the social programs of the modern state.

39

joe 08.05.11 at 4:36 pm

I once met Julian Lennon, I’d had a few drinks at the time and said I’d always wanted to meet the son of God. His curt reply: “That’s original”

Cringe..

40

Ben 08.05.11 at 4:36 pm

@30

You’re still confusing. How is mandatory education a good from which some are excluded?

Also: “The question of the size of these externalities and credit frictions is empirical.” If you can cite a study, or even a methodology, which captures the public externalities of universal, mandatory, publicly-funded, public education . . . I’d like to read it, it’d be interesting.

Also interesting: an idea of what you’re thinking of besides public provision of education that’s a Pareto improvement to what we’ve got now.

41

Ben 08.05.11 at 4:37 pm

er, @37 (damn public education . . . )

42

bh 08.05.11 at 4:45 pm

#37 — It’s not my job to help you move the goalposts. You made an unsupportable point, period.

43

Uncle Kvetch 08.05.11 at 5:00 pm

@unkle, no, the 18th. More formal state-sanctioned free primary education started in France in 1833, hence the 80% literacy rate in 1850.

Point taken, zamfir — thanks.

44

ajay 08.05.11 at 5:02 pm

Education may produce positive externalities but it is both excludable and rivalrous (at least in part), so it is not a public good.

The externalities, it is being argued, are a public good; i.e. simply by living in a country with mass education and hence an educated population, you are getting all sorts of benefits without paying for them, from which it is impossible to exclude you (without, I suppose, kicking you out of the country).

Think of it like sewers. Having sewers in your house is excludable – and there’s no question that you are getting most of the benefit from them – but if I live in a society which has universal sewers, I will benefit from externalities like “not dying of cholera” and “breathing fresh air that doesn’t smell of poo” from which it is impossible to exclude me.

I don’t see how church provided education is evidence in favor of mass literacy requiring the use of tax revenues to provide general education. That looks to me like private provision of educational services.

Well, you’re wrong; it isn’t. Defining a church as clearly part of the private sector is a very (ahem) parochial thing to do. When you have an established church with legally-enforced authority over education, whose funding either comes from the government or from tithing, whose ministers are appointed or approved by the government and/or whose titular head is also the head of state, then it’s closer to being an arm of the state than it is to being a private organisation.

45

Dragon-King Wangchuck 08.05.11 at 5:07 pm

zamfir @ 38 pointed out that primary education was formally mandated in 1833. I didn’t know this or about the Guizot Law until I did some moar reading. It’s not universal since girls weren’t included until 1850.

I don’t know much about History or teh French I took, but the literacy graph cited shows a steady decline in illiteracy post-Revolution. Almost as if instituting a national primary education system was something that may have taken some time in the 1800′s.

Anyways, my point was that the improvement in literacy rate over that time period probably had something to do with mass education. That “free universal public education” as we know it now didn’t all of a sudden appear out of nowhere. That the process by which what we now know as “free universal public education” came to be in the first place occured at the time and place being cited.

46

bh 08.05.11 at 5:22 pm

Also, the type of private-public distinction that libertarians like to pretend is primal is really a modern invention. Churches in 18th century Europe — not ‘private.’ Nor were the independent municipalities that provided schools. If you want to argue some sort of local control argument, you could try, though it would be pretty weak, as literacy rates have kept rising literally up to the present day. But the idea that the institutions we’re discussing here were in contrast to modern government — rather than their predecessors — is just silly.

Culturally-bounded language games played by people with limited social conscience — aka “derivation from first principles” by libertarians — just isn’t a profitable way to understand the past.

And did I really see an argument that posited a ‘util’ as quantifiable in an absolute sense? Even the U of C guys know better than that.

47

Dragon-King Wangchuck 08.05.11 at 5:23 pm

Furthermore, what are the thresholds for non-rival and non-excludable?

Is education really more non-rival than public roads? The fact that it’s legally mandatory kinda gives it a leg-up on the non-excludable front too.

48

Dragon-King Wangchuck 08.05.11 at 5:24 pm

Er, I mean “less non-rival”.

49

bh 08.05.11 at 5:42 pm

BTW, not that anyone cares, but the “#24″ I referred to above has somehow become #31 in the meantime. And I swear I was #28, now 35. Do the numbers get reordered as people respond to each other, or did I just mess it up?

50

Substance McGravitas 08.05.11 at 5:43 pm

Do the numbers get reordered as people respond to each other

Yes. Blockquoting or time-reference is better.

51

Substance McGravitas 08.05.11 at 5:44 pm

Except that the HTML doesn’t work properly either of course…

52

Dragon-King Wangchuck 08.05.11 at 5:48 pm

I guess I’m lucky in that I’m pretty ignorant of the arguments for throwing teachers into a gladiatorial tournament. So if someone could just clarify, what is being argued here? That the state should not be providing mandatory free public education? What’s the problem? Is it the “mandatory” part, the “free” part, the “public” part, the part where secularizing all education leads to a reduction in Catholic schoolgirl uniforms? I don’t understand.

53

noen 08.05.11 at 6:05 pm

One eyed men are only kings when everyone else is blind.

54

Dragon-King Wangchuck 08.05.11 at 6:21 pm

I’m not sure if this is a disclaimer, but here’s some background about my bias in this case. I’m a new dad. My progeny is way way too young for me to be worrying about the quality of her educators right now, but as a new father I am entirely sympathetic to overpaying teachers{fn1}.

Here’s the deal, you trust these people with your kids. You ask them to help develop their identities and their understanding of the world. And they are your kids. You know what? I’m okay with it being inefficient{fn2}, so long as it’s good.

fn1: That’s granting the question begging of spending too much on public education.
fn2: Ibid.

55

Frank in midtown 08.05.11 at 6:26 pm

yes neon, poster is implying we are all blind.

56

mpowell 08.05.11 at 6:31 pm

It’s a good message, but there is a sense in which it should be so obvious, it is hard to imagine persuading people who are not otherwise persuaded. I’m not sure what switch you have to flip in a libertarian or conservative’s brain for them to truly appreciate this point, but I doubt it is one that is governed by logic.

57

Harold 08.05.11 at 7:32 pm

Education can never be a “private” good, because of the huge amount of redundancy required for communications systems to work. If a society needs a certain amount of lawyers, accountants, engineers, printers, merchants, doctors, nurses, technicians, and leaders of all types, and so on, then it also needs a large reserve pool standing by to support and help those people and to be ready to take their place if necessary. In today’s world, even what used to be blue collar occupations, like building engineers (janitors), sailors, people who manage transportation systems, maintain machines, require substantial amounts (really substantial) of technical and computer training.

Even maintaining (transmitting, refining) our language requires great cultural redundancy.

58

Harold 08.05.11 at 7:44 pm

to Understudy @ 2 “Per pupil real spending has doubled in a generation, what has been the societal return for that large increase in spending?”

Educational spending has doubled because the law now requires that individualized services to the handicapped must be provided in the schools, starting from kindergarten For example, individualized speech therapy, which our child had to have. As people with highly specialized degrees and training, speech therapists earn more. Before this we had to pay $50 a week to a private therapist out of our pocket at a time when $50 was worth a whole lot more than today, and we were struggling to support ourselves on an entry-level salary. Speech therapy is common, but some handicapped children require constant care from several specialists while in school.

If you subtract special education, you will see that per-pupil educational spending in the inner cities is far below that of the suburbs in the US.

As far as the social return: the handicapped, on whom the money is being spent, have a more decent life and better social prospects than formerly and the burden on their parents has been somewhat eased.

People who ignore these facts are being disingenuous — and – or – dishonest.

59

MPAVictoria 08.05.11 at 8:31 pm

Harold I never looked at the numbers that way. Very interesting and I have learned something. Thank you.

60

Harold 08.05.11 at 8:49 pm

Redundancy = “they also serve who only stand and wait”

Trying to get rid of redundancy in the name of “efficiency” is foolish and socially destructive.

61

John Quiggin 08.05.11 at 10:13 pm

My general impression of libertarians (the logic-chopping kind that dominates the blogosphere at any rate) is that they are mostly moderately clever kids who haven’t yet got over the discovery that they are smarter than their 10th grade teacher was. When (if) they grow up, they stop being libertarians.

62

Watson Ladd 08.05.11 at 10:20 pm

@Harrold: If that’s the case why do we have such a large reserve pool of ditch diggers and such a small reserve pool for other trades? Or is this just a principled defense of featherbedding? That which two can do that one does has suddenly gotten a lot cheaper when you fire the superflous person and get him to do something else.

63

Uncle Kvetch 08.05.11 at 11:01 pm

My general impression of libertarians (the logic-chopping kind that dominates the blogosphere at any rate)

Not just logic-chopping, but fact-chopping too. They’re nothing if not versatile.

64

Harold 08.05.11 at 11:12 pm

to @62: How is having a broadly educated populace “featherbedding”? It is having an educated populace who can step into a variety of tasks that constitutes redundancy, not having an extra supply of teachers — if that’s what you mean. And we don’t, by the way, since there is tremendous attrition in that field.

And who constitutes this large reserve pool of “ditchdiggers”, anyway? We need people who can read and follow directions to operate the machines that dig the ditches.

65

Watson Ladd 08.05.11 at 11:17 pm

@62. But they aren’t reserve if they are using their skills in the meantime. I think that threw me for a loop just there. Anyway, I would argue education needs to be defended on its civic basis: that those who know nothing of Bach are worse off for that in a ‘spiritual’ sense. The economics just don’t seem to be there.

66

bh 08.05.11 at 11:26 pm

Every time I argue with an Internet libertarian, I die a little inside. They’re so prevalent I feel like I should push back, but it’s just intensely wearying.

I think there are interesting, important discussions to be had around these issues, but an inordinate amount of time is spent clearing space around the most basic defenses of the welfare state. It’s just not edifying.

Like Watson Ladd’s last comment. It’s late, it’s been a long week, and I can’t talk like a social scientist anymore … dude, what the hell is wrong with you? How could you possibly think that’s a good-faith interpretation of Harold’s comments? What do you — or anyone else — gain by this inane, context-free point-scoring?

67

bh 08.05.11 at 11:27 pm

… fwiw, I was referring to what’s now his second-to-last post. But they’re both meritless.

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Harold 08.05.11 at 11:35 pm

I personally believe that knowing about Bach can be defended, though I am not completely sure how to do it as yet, but as I see it, it has something to do with the profound communications skills that Bach possessed. People deserve to know and experience this.

As I see it economics is merely a branch of history and privileging it as a source of authority or higher truth is absurd.

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Watson Ladd 08.05.11 at 11:58 pm

@bh. Like I said, the word reserve threw me for a loop. I’m used to the word reserve meaning unused resources ready to redeploy. (Besides, where does this assumption that I am a libertarian come from?)

@Harold: You’ve made economic claims. You argued redundancy shouldn’t be sacrificed for efficiency. I pointed out that this was a bad idea: you should figure out how much redundancy you need. If you make claims about economics be prepared to have economics judge them. (as Kant pointed out in “Conflict of the Faculties”). That doesn’t mean that economics determines politics. As I realize you were arguing that a basic education is required for almost all jobs, and that such an education benefits us all. But that isn’t going to get us money for music classes, or science classes, or even calculus in all schools.

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bh 08.06.11 at 2:22 am

Yes, I get from your linked website that you style yourself as some sort of reformer of the left. Honestly, you can call yourself anything you want, as long as you’d stop flooding threads with your terrible posts.

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Atticus Dogsbody 08.06.11 at 4:06 am

@OneEyedMan: Your understanding is lacking.

This linky gives a resonable summary (with footnotes) of the progression of Public education in France during the Revolution and Napoleonic era.

http://www.napoleon-series.org/research/society/c_education.html

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Harold 08.06.11 at 4:35 am

You never answered my question about the ditch diggers.

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Harold 08.06.11 at 5:47 am

OneEyedMan,

You asked for links about “mandatory, publicly funded public education,” which you erroneously believe started in the late nineteenth century. The reason the USA had such a high literacy was that the Protestant sects who founded it believed that literacy was a requirement for Salvation. There were similarly high literacy rates in Protestant countries such a Switzerland and Scotland. According to wikipedia:

January 1561 John Knox and a small group of clergymen set out a national programme for spiritual reform, including the “virtuous education and godly upbringing of the youth of this Realm” with a schoolmaster to be appointed to every church. “For the poor, if need be, education may be given free; for the rich, it is only necessary to see that education is given under proper supervision”.

MORE from wiki:
In 1616 an act in Privy council commanded every parish to establish a school “where convenient means may be had”, and when the Parliament of Scotland ratified this with the Education Act of 1633, a tax on local landowners was introduced to provide the necessary endowment. A loophole which allowed evasion of this tax was closed in the Education Act of 1646, which established a solid institutional foundation for schools on Covenanter principles. Although the Restoration brought a reversion to the 1633 position, in 1696 new legislation restored the provisions of 1646 together with means of enforcement “more suitable to the age”. An act of the Scottish parliament in 1696 (reinforced in 1801) underlined the aim of having a school in every parish. In rural communities these obliged local landowners (heritors) to provide a schoolhouse and pay a schoolmaster, while ministers and local presbyteries oversaw the quality of the education. In many Scottish towns, burgh schools were operated by local councils.[ENDQUOTE]
***It is no accident that Scotland was in the forefront of eighteenth century enlightenment and philosophy.

The Calvinists also admired the republicanism of Classical Antiquity and stressed a humanistic, liberal arts education (as did the Catholics, by the way).
In the USA:
http://www.city-data.com/states/Massachusetts-Education.html
“The Boston Latin School opened in 1635 as the first public school in the colonies. Harvard College—the first college in the US—was founded the following year. In 1647, for the first time, towns with more than 50 people were required by law to establish taxsupported school systems. More firsts followed: the country’s first board of education, compulsory school attendance law, training school for teachers, state school for the retarded, and school for the blind.” [ENDQUOTE]
Scholarships were often provided by wealthy men for promising pupils to attend Harvard.

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bad Jim 08.06.11 at 8:49 am

I had a couple of encounters with Jerry Garcia and found myself completely unable to speak, so, no. Later I shared an elevator with a shrunken, superannuated Bob Hope and there was nothing anyone but his handlers could say to him. More recently I ran into the composer John Adams; I was dashing out the door to get a drink, he was rushing to the stage, perhaps to talk to the conductor. Our feet tangled: two tall, skinny, white-bearded men.

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ejh 08.06.11 at 8:53 am

My general impression of libertarians (the logic-chopping kind that dominates the blogosphere at any rate) is that they are mostly moderately clever kids who haven’t yet got over the discovery that they are smarter than their 10th grade teacher was. When (if) they grow up, they stop being libertarians.

However, well-off people don’t really ever need to grow up, especially if they’re men. And so many of them never do.

And bearing in mind that their magic solutions apply to other people, not to them, and are rarely put into effect anyway, and hence never tested, they can keep hold of their beliefs for as long as they live.

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garymar 08.06.11 at 1:20 pm

@Harold:

The reason the USA had such a high literacy was that the Protestant sects who founded it believed that literacy was a requirement for Salvation.

Reading Albion’s Seed really puts this in perspective. The 4 major British influences on American culture had wildly differing views of education:

1. Puritans: everybody needs education for salvation. They founded Harvard.
2. Quakers: basic education for everybody, trades and apprenticeships too, but were afraid that higher education would dampen the Inner Light.
3. Tidewater aristocracy: high education for the established elites only. Educating the lower orders would disrupt the natural order — and at all costs keep it from the slaves!
4. Backcountry reivers: booklarnin’ is for sissies. Think Huck Finn’s father. Jethro Bodine was proud to have made it all the way to the eighth grade.

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Watson Ladd 08.06.11 at 1:32 pm

@Harold: Look at the breakdown of unemployment rates per educational attainment. Those who can do jobs requiring education are much more likely to be employed then those who can’t. Again, I didn’t understand what you meant by reserve apparently. To me that’s reserve as in reserve army of labor.

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OneEyedMan 08.06.11 at 5:39 pm

Harold and Atticus Dogsbody,
Thanks. I was wrong on the historical record, it does appear that very high levels of literacy occurs concomitantly with mass education in the France. I also agree that a state funded and controlled church providing mandated education for free is no different than the state doing it. But if such schooling is optional and they charge fees to most people, then I think it is more like private provision.

Does the following link work for you? It hopefully shows page 59 of The rise of mass literacy: reading and writing in modern Europe. I read it as showing a surprisingly weak relationship between school attendance measures and one measure of literacy. On page 66 he says “Individual literacy should initially be regarded as a function rather than a precondition of prosperity.” I’m not trying to make the point that the modern world could exist without mandatory, free, publicly provided education. I don’t know the answer to that. But I think there is more ambiguity on the relationship between whether mass education caused mass literacy or it was the way that mass literacy desired by families was implemented.

Ben
The current system is likely Pareto Optimal. We may not be able to make the system of public education better without making at least one person strictly worse off. That’s a very low standard for public policies to meet.

Dragon-King Wangchuck
I don’t know if there is a generally agreed threshold for non-rival and non-excludable. I had a professor say that the following was so extreme that people would still consider it non-excludable. The fire department puts out your house fire to save your neighbors homes who paid their fire insurance but then sends in a wrecking team to demolish your house because it would have otherwise burned and you didn’t pay your fire service fees. Another professors disagreed. I don’t think it is a matter of if the law requires that we not exclude because we could have other laws. But if it is such a moral outrage that we’d never consider having it be any other way, then perhaps that no different than a lack of technological excludability.

Given current capacity constraints both education and public roads have serious rivalry problems. I don’t see how we can simultaneously say that education doesn’t have a rivalry problem and think (as many do) that class sizes are too large or teachers are not paid enough. We could easily have smaller classes with better paid teachers if the system didn’t have to educate as many students, thus students are in rivalry with each other over educational resources. Despite acknowledging some scale economies and externalities, I think it misleads more than it illuminates to think of education (or roads) as a public good. There are plenty of other collective action and market failure problems besides public goods that could serve as legitimate motive for government action in these areas.

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Keith 08.06.11 at 9:22 pm

bh@13:

I’d like to see Matt Damon enter politics

Did you see the Adjustment Bureau? He played a politician in that and was so good I wanted to vote for him by the time the movie was over.

****

My only critique of Corry Doctorow’s (and others) assertion about education as a public good, is that this idea (which I wholeheartedly support as both and educator and the child of educators) is that it presupposes that an open, free democracy is the desired status quo. Despite lip service to that effect, it’s clear that, at least in the US the Tea Party/GOP do not want an open, free democracy, seeing as how they are busy dismantling the infrastructure that supports such a thing. Which of course begs the question of what it is they do want. By all accounts they’re working towards replacing our current system with some form of corporate feudalism, based on the faulty reasoning that a privatized society would naturally be a democratic one.

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Martin G. 08.06.11 at 9:23 pm

I have nothing to add to the discussion, except I feel a burning need to gloat that I once had a very interesting, two-hour chat (well, interview) with Umberto Eco in which I think I didn’t say anything stupid. He was very nice. Here are some pictures I took of him. Neener neener neener.

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Harold 08.06.11 at 10:30 pm

I am familiar with Albion’s Seed. I think the invention of cheap paper and the rail roads, and especially the postal service which brought newspapers (and later things like Sears Roebuck catalogs) to hitherto isolated places undoubtedly facilitated literacy and the rise of public schooling and spread of universities. Masonic schools for girls used to be common (my great grandfather was the principal of one). According to David Howe’s What Hath God Wrought, self-improvement, in the form of continuing reading and attending lectures was in the nineteenth century a part of the American ideology – and it stemmed from the Puritans (I know I am simplifying horribly.) And the South did not and still does not wish to finance public schools for the indigent (unlike New England). Places like Missouri, where Mark Twain was from, were a meeting place (melting pot) for all the four strains of Albion’s Seed, and thus, according to some, sort of a fulcrum of Americana.
W.J. Cash wrote:
Even at the best and fullest, the idea of social responsibility which grew up in the South remained always a narrow and purely personal one. . . . The Virginians themselves … never got beyond that brutal individualism — and for all the Jeffersonian glorification of the idea, it was brutal as it worked out in the plantation world — which was the heritage of the frontier; that individualism which, while willing enough to ameliorate the specific instance, relentlessly laid down as its basic social postulate the doctrine that every man was completely and wholly responsible for himself. … The individual outlook . . . the whole paternalistic pattern, in fact, the complete otherworldliness of religious feeling . . . all this, combining with their natural unrealism of temperament, bred in [white Southerners] a thoroughgoing satisfaction, the most complete blindness to the true facts of their world.”

He goes on to say:

“hardly any Southerner of the master class every even slightly apprehended that the general shiftlessness and degradation of the masses was a social product. Hardly one, in truth, ever concerned himself about the systematic raising of the economic and social level of these masses. And if occasional men [would sponsor a school here and there, the same men] . . . would take the lead in indignantly rejecting the Yankee idea of universal free schools maintained at the public charge . . .” W. J. Cash, The Mind of the South (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1941).

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Anon 08.06.11 at 10:37 pm

Where Doctorow goes wrong is here:

“Education is a public good. It is best SUPPLIED and paid for by the group as a whole.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Public goods need to be subsidized, sure, but that is not a reason for them to be supplied by the government as well.

Vaccinations are a public good, for example, and it’s a good idea if the government subsidizes vaccinations, but that in no way means that the government actually needs to hire employees to provide the vaccinations . . . it’s enough to pay for someone else to provide the vaccinations.

Roads are a public good, and it’s good for the government to subsidize roads, but that in no way means that the government has to use its own employees to build the roads and cannot hire contractors.

Medicine is a public good, and it’s good for the government to subsidize medicine, but that doesn’t mean that most doctors should be employed by a government agency, it merely means that the government needs to help pay.

Etc., etc., etc.

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Bruce Wilder 08.07.11 at 12:57 am

It is not at all that clear to me that education is a “public good” by a strict, economist’s definition of public goods as “nonrival” and “non-excludable.” Doctorow appears to me to be appealing to a fuzzier intuition, in making his appeal broad, that doesn’t permit so many fine, abstract distinctions.

I’m fine with such fuzzy thinking. In some ways, such intuitions, on a broad base of experience, are less hazardous than theoretical speculations, derived from a narrow, abstract base of fine distinctions.

Experience seems to me to indicate that education is a sunk-cost investment, which cannot be reliably recovered, privately, by the investor. So, even if it is not, strictly speaking a “public good”, the incidence of returns tends to spread throughout the society, and to flow as returns to land and capital, as much or more than as wages. The illusion that education correlates with wage income is partly a confusion of the rents reserved by credentialism and occupational licensing, and partly an artifact of the class system, which prescribes more formal education for those slotted into higher-paid positions in bureaucracies. Much of the higher incomes of the educated, nevertheless, is drawn away as rental income to landlords, as the educated crowd cities, where their education may have its greatest synergistic benefits.

Many of the same features that make investment in education difficult to recover, make both private provision and private financing of education unlikely to be, at the economists would say, optimal.

The record of private for-profit schooling is appalling, and sectarian schooling, as well, has yielded mixed results. Public education in the U.S. is not in a particularly happy state. The demand for bureaucratic performance in controlling the “production process” of education is not misplaced, but since economists refuse to include the 3/4s of our economy, which is bureaucracy, we don’t have a convenient list of “bureaucracy failures” to match our canonical list of “market failures”. Left to their own devices, absent other information, parents will pursue status; “good schools” will be the schools with “good students”, meaning those destined by dint of family ambition, to “succeed”.

Aristocrats will always want the common folk, common and appropriately villainous: grateful, ignorant and unwashed.

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soru 08.07.11 at 10:50 am

that is not a reason for them to be supplied by the government as well

By itself that is true. However, it’s a pretty uncontroversial premise that profit-driven companies are different from other organisations more or less proportionally to the extent they are serious about making a profit. And for exactly the same reasons that the interests of customers of bread shops are generally well-served when those shops are run on a profit-making basis, the opposite is true for the customers of free schools.

Instead of an alignment of interests, stabilised by competition, you have a misalignment of interests in the absence of practical competition. The only way to recover anything functional would be heavy regulation. And given how many regulators you would need, and that the regulators would need, in order to do their job, to be knowledgeable about and driven by education, you really might as well cut out the middle-man and have them teach the kids directly.

The exception is a small fee-paying private sector in an environment of free baseline eduction, which (from this perspective, although there are others) works fine, as it is in the interests of the provider to supply a better-then-baseline education. And that can be evaluated reasonably reliably and more-or-less immediately by comparing exam scores. Instead of waiting for society to collapse because everyone has been mis-sold fake education.

Once you have ruled out mass for-profit education, you are pretty much left with state or church, and state at least avoid the issue of _which church_?

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tomslee 08.07.11 at 11:52 am

derek@11: There are signs that university teaching is going the tournament route: see Alex Tabarrok, here.

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Anon 08.07.11 at 2:03 pm

Soru — why don’t you take a look at the European countries that have guaranteed subsidies for private schools and much larger private school sectors than the United States, and see whether your predictions come true?

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Harold 08.07.11 at 4:54 pm

Anon, #86, if you have information about countries and programs you think is relevant, then don’t be so coy, why don’t you share it with us instead of telling people to look it up?

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Anon 08.07.11 at 5:04 pm

Look at countries like Sweden, Netherlands, Belgium, where all private schools are guaranteed funding from the government. But do we see any of the dire consequences that are predicted from letting a few thousand American kids here and there have such funding?

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Harold 08.07.11 at 6:48 pm

Anon, as I understand it, in the European countries that you name, private schools, to be eligible for state support, must meet stringent requirements. For example, they are not allowed to charge admission fees and must follow the state curriculum; in addition they are required to comprehensive (non-selective) like the state schools, that is, to accept all who apply on the same basis that the state schools do, and they must also provide all the social entitlements that the state schools supply. As a result there are few private schools in those counties, other than Steiner Schools and religious schools, which are opposed to selective admission on principle.

I myself would not object to state funding for private schools under those conditions.

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Bruce Wilder 08.07.11 at 7:02 pm

Anon conveniently overlooks the “for-profit” qualification, which soru and others have made.

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Anon 08.07.11 at 8:42 pm

No, Harold, in the Netherlands and Belgium, over 50% of students (if I recall) are in private schools, paid for by the government. Nothing small about that. And yes, they’re regulated, but that in itself disproves soru’s claim that regulation somehow is pointless because it might as well be provision. Private schools in those countries are indeed regulated by the goverment, without anyone thinking that government provision is required.

As for Bruce: if soru was relying on a for-profit distinction, then the comment was oddly irrelevant. For-profit K-12 schools are rather uncommon anywhere; most private schools in America are 501(c)(3)’s.

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Harold 08.07.11 at 8:55 pm

According to wikipedia in Holland: “Non-religious private schools are rare”. It does not say what kind of regulations are required (the info I gave above is for Scandinavia). I have not looked up Belgium, but I assume most private schools there are also predominantly religious (and I don’t think Belgium is a model for anyone, anyway). Wiki:
“Public, special (religious), and general-special (neutral) schools[1] are government-financed, receiving equal financial support from the government if certain criteria are met. Although they are officially free of charge, these schools may ask for a parental contribution (ouderbijdrage). Private schools rely on their own funds, but they are highly uncommon in the Netherlands, to the extent that even the Dutch monarchs have traditionally attended special or public schools. Public schools are controlled by local governments. Special schools are controlled by a school board, and are typically based on a particular religion; those that assume equality between religions are known as general-special schools. These differences are present in all levels of education. As a result, there can be Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim elementary schools, high schools, and universities. A special school can reject applications of pupils whose parents or caretakers disagree with the school’s educational philosophy [But can they reject them for having special educational needs or for having lower test scores, like the the US private and charter Schools?]. This is an uncommon occurrence. In practice, there is little difference between special schools and public schools, except in traditionally religious areas of the Dutch Bible Belt. All school types (public, special and private) are under the jurisdiction of a government body called Inspectie van het Onderwijs (Inspection of Education, also known as Onderwijsinspectie) that can demand a school to change its educational policy and quality at the risk of closure.”

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shah8 08.07.11 at 9:20 pm

Just a shout-out to Harold@58. You all wouldn’t have me for company, if it were otherwise…

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Harold 08.07.11 at 9:28 pm

@93, huh?

Anon,

I gather that education in the Netherlands and Belgium is free, compulsory, and state- funded whether religious or secular, is this not true? Also, non-state administered education is very highly regulated, is it not true? As far as I can see, sectarian schools can only reject pupils if their parents oppose their religious philosophies, not because the pupils might cost more to educate or bring down their scores or records of university admissions, no?

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shah8 08.07.11 at 9:43 pm

I benefited from all those state resources. I’m hard of hearing.

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Anon 08.07.11 at 11:52 pm

Right, according to Wikipedia, in the Netherlands, “over two-thirds of state-funded schools operate autonomously.” Private schools, public funding. So where’s the big problem?

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Helen 08.08.11 at 12:14 am

Almost everyone could get by just fine if I didn’t speak and read English but I would suffer a great if I did not.

New keyboard, please!

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Harold 08.08.11 at 2:43 am

You benefitted and you are a taxpayer. It’s a win win.

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soru 08.08.11 at 10:49 am

if soru was relying on a for-profit distinction, then the comment was oddly irrelevant

Hardly. The point is you can’t rely on a distinction making a difference unless that distinction meaningfully exists. You can organise state-funded schools in a variety of ways, some of which will result in them being nominally counted as part of the private sector. There is nothing particularly systematic about the resulting minor differences. Everyone involved is still making decisions based on the underlying assumption that the goal is to teach kids as well as possible, preferably without going beyond some upper budget limit.

So the only plausible reason anyone might want to lobby to reorganise an existing system in such a way is to introduce religious or profit-seeking elements. The US health care system is the existence proof of the possibility of their success in such lobbying, and an indication of what might result.

The strength and cost of regulation has to be proportional to the power and ferocity of the thing regulated. You can keep a hamster in a hamster cage, but for a bear you need a bear cage. Which is not only expensive, but a bear in a bear cage is not going to behave in a particularly bear-like way.

So any sane goal you might have wanted to achieve by having a bear as a pet is unlikely to be met.

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Harold 08.08.11 at 2:35 pm

Anon, the schools also operate “autonomously” in Finland, that is, they are run by local municipalities (with help from State funding to make up shortfalls). But that same wiki article says that in the Netherlands :

“All school types (public, special [i.e., religious] and private) are under the jurisdiction of a government body called Inspectie van het Onderwijs (Inspection of Education, also known as Onderwijsinspectie) that can demand a school to change its educational policy and quality at the risk of closure.”

Can the U.S. DOE do that? Sounds like state control to me.

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Substance McGravitas 08.08.11 at 9:27 pm

“All school types (public, special [i.e., religious] and private) are under the jurisdiction of a government body called Inspectie van het Onderwijs (Inspection of Education, also known as Onderwijsinspectie) that can demand a school to change its educational policy and quality at the risk of closure.”

The Netherlands and Belgium have pretty confusing educational structures and quality-control mechanisms, some of which are quite new. I wouldn’t use either country as an example of one particular educational structure, since each seems to house many and European education, with integration, is in a state of ongoing change. If the argument is that education is subject to control, it might be more true now, but that control is a patchy thing and might have been very different, say, 15 years ago.

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