My “Education” editorial prompted a rational and cogent response from David Land in the Morgan County Citizen. This is one of the reasons I began writing this column, to engage those with differing views in polite discourse free of the usual “Left-Right” rhetoric. Thank you David. I would like to respond to the issues raised.

should anything benefiting the individual be subsidized by the state?

First point: Education is a public good because it tends to benefit society; therefore society should subsidize it. Anything that benefits the individual can benefit society (because society is composed of individuals). This begs the question: should anything benefiting the individual be subsidized by the state? For example, automobiles permit a broader range of employment options and access to goods, so one could argue businesses should subsidize (through taxes) automobile purchases, as that would ultimately benefit those businesses that will have access to more employees and customers. But we don’t do that. Why? Because the free market responded to the demand for this valuable good, thus transforming the car from a luxury available exclusively to the wealthy into a luxury available to every sector of society.  The point is that while a K-12 education is now extremely costly (+$100,000) this would not be the case had there been a free market in education all along, the cost would be closer to an affordable $30,000 over 13 years and thus the argument over “who should pay for it” would vanish. Companies need educated workers, but workers need an education to get jobs. It’s a two way street in which two parties engage in a mutually beneficial exchange (labor <–> money) and there is no a priori reason to assert that party A must provide resources to party B in order that party B may meet the requirements of said exchange and thereby benefit both parties. If you want to buy my house should I be forced to lend you money because said purchase ultimately benefits me?

If shifting costs from an employee to their employer tends to drive wages down, why is it hard to accept that shifting costs from an employer back to the employee would not drive wages up?

Second point: In a free market business owners would never pass on the tax savings derived from elimination of subsidized public education. I do understand the basis for this objection: normally if a business has a good year or receives a tax cut there is no incentive to simply divide the surplus among all employees. However the situation I was describing is unique because it is a specific trade of funds, namely, the tax being cut is used for a known (earmarked as it were) cost of living for the majority of employees. So the incentives are different from that of a “normal” tax cut. If we understand the incentives then we can understand why most would raise wages and/or lower prices. Let us suppose we could wave a magic wand and eliminate all property tax and most state income tax overnight. Employees would now find themselves in the position of having to pay for their children’s education directly. Those formerly subsidized employees would jointly demand higher wages to approximate their net increase in costs. The incentive to comply for the employer is two fold: 1) maintenance of employee morale through a raise that employers can easily afford (for example, Seachem could easily afford this as we pay over $60k/year into the school system) and 2) lack of rehiring options if a trained employee quits over wages…most potential replacements would be demanding the same higher wage. But let us assume for the sake of argument that no employers would give raises. What would be the result? Because most (99%+) employees with children would value their children more than anything else in their lives they would pay for their education first, thus decreasing their demand for discretionary goods and services. The decline in that demand would result in lowered revenue for those businesses, who would then in turn lower their prices (which they could afford to do out of the tax savings) in an attempt to attract back customers…this would thus make goods and services more affordable for everyone. Even if nominal wages ($) are static, real wages (purchasing power) increase as prices decline (price deflation). Because education costs could drop by as much as 2/3rds the overall effect is a net gain to the aggregate productive capacity of the economy. If you’re still skeptical, ask yourself this: Imagine the reverse, imagine that the government instituted a new “food tax” that supported a program that provided all food for all citizens, would we not expect wages to decline over time (e.g. if you spend $12,000/year less on food it makes it easier to accept a lower wage)? So if shifting costs from an employee to their employer tends to drive wages down, why is it hard to accept that shifting costs from an employer back to the employee would not drive wages up?

Wouldn’t we expect automobile ownership (that is, any luxury item) to be lower in Haiti?

Third point: Haiti as a real world example where a mostly private education system has failed. This is an interesting example, however it is an apples to oranges comparison that only underscores the expected market penetration of a luxury item in an impoverished country.  Education, while desirable and beneficial, is not essential to life and so it is economically classified as a luxury good. So are automobiles. If we were comparing automobile ownership between the US and Haiti wouldn’t we expect automobile ownership (that is, any luxury item) to be lower in Haiti? In fact they are: 12 vs. 808 per 1000 people. So if one luxury good has a low market penetration in a poor country wouldn’t we expect all other luxury goods to as well, including education? Using an impoverished country such as Haiti as an example of how the free market cannot provide education to all citizens is as fallacious as arguing that the private market in Haiti has been a failure in making automobiles available to all citizens and thus the only answer is a publicly subsidized automobile ownership program.

Fourth point: Children of the poor would suffer due to lack of educational opportunity. Poor children would not experience a lack of educational opportunities as schools would offer needs based scholarships (as private schools do today) and charitable organizations focused on education would quickly sprout up (funded by those who honorably believe it is their obligation). But let us assume again a worst-case scenario and that those in poverty could not go to school. Will they just lay down in the street and die? Of course not. If there is a demand, the market will respond. Perhaps home schooling co-ops might form. Perhaps businesses would charter trade-focused schools. One example of how the market can quickly and effectively provide a superior education to those in the low income spectrum was the destruction of the public school system in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. Charter schools were quickly legalized and the market responded with schools that have by every measure outperformed the old system (see video at 30:00 mark). The point is that the creative brain power of millions of people will find solutions to even the most challenging issues.

I could just as easily argue that public education was the cause of those countries’ poor GDP as I could argue that private education was the cause in Haiti.

Fifth point: Education drives productivity and since private education would result in fewer people being educated this would result in lowered US productivity. Again, private education would not result in fewer people being educated, but even if we assume for the sake of argument it is true it would not change the productivity of the US. Enhanced educational opportunities are not what drove the tremendous growth in the US, but rather are a result of it. It’s like saying “look at that wealthy guy with the fancy car… if I buy a fancy car then I can become wealthy too!” If we accept this assertion then we would expect in every country where there is public education we would find a GDP comparable to the US. But that is not what we see. There are numerous countries that have public education and a GDP near that of Haiti’s . Why would education be a determinant in GDP outcome in Haiti but not in these other countries? I could just as easily argue that public education was the cause of those countries’ poor GDP as I could argue that private education was the cause in Haiti. In point of fact, Cuba ranks above the US in the United Nations Education Index, so that alone should dispel any notion of education driving economic prosperity.

Sixth point: Uneducated masses being unable to secure jobs would turn to crime. The correlation between crime and education is real, but the assumed causal relationship is backwards: lack of education doesn’t make criminals, rather most of those with criminal proclivities are afflicted with a pre-existing condition: contempt for education (by either themselves, their families or culturally). Every criminal in our jails went through our public school system. Clearly a lack of educational opportunity played no roll in their current status.

If we had a non-monopolized private system of K-12 education then education would be one of those “luxuries” that all could enjoy, just as things that were once considered luxuries only for the wealthy are now commonplace (e.g. cars, cell-phones, ball point pens, air travel, air conditioning, etc). That’s what a free market does over time, it becomes more efficient at producing those goods and services in high demand until they become affordable for all. Affordability eliminates subsidization.