March 04, 2009
Best Working Paper I Just Finished Reading

After reading Bryan Caplan's post on chapter 7 of Murray Rothbard's For a New Liberty, I decided to go ahead and read this paper by Lant Pritchett and Martina Viarengo (I think I got the tip to this paper from an earlier Econlog post, but I can't find the link). They argue that, in spite of ample evidence that private provision is superior to public provision and no evidence that public provision is superior to private provision, governments generally tend to produce education instead of relying on private suppliers. I found this particularly interesting in light of our discussions of Adam Smith and Karl Marx on education in Classical & Marxian Political Economy and my recent experience judging one of the "dramatic interpretation" competitions at a forensics tournament for homeschoolers. In The Communist Manifesto, state-provided and state-controlled education is part of the articulated logic of Marx's revolutionary program.

Pritchett and Viarengo argue that government schools exist to produce not just values-neutral skills like literacy and mathematical competence, but beliefs and values. In other words, governments have a stake in controlling schools for the same reason they have a stake in controlling media: socialization and inculcation of regime-friendly values.

Their new wrinkle is that they expand conventional models of schooling supply and demand to include provision of beliefs in addition to skills. As evidence, they cite the prevalence of religious schools as the alternative to government schools. Both governments and religious organizations "are willing to subsidize skill acquisition in order to link it with socialization and the inculcation of belief" (p. 8). They argue that while it might be easy to measure the acquisition of skills, it is difficult to accurately measure the degree to which people have acquired beliefs because consumers could contract for "insincere instruction" (pp. 9-10) One can be taught to say prayers, to pledge allegiance to the flag, or to recite the Gettysburg address without actually absorbing the beliefs these activities represent. The ability to recite the Pledge of Allegiance is not a credible signal that one in fact feels a sense of allegiance to the republic for which it stands.

They posit the existence of a "regime" with preferences that can be modeled; I think an interesting next step for the paper would be to introduce a theory of the polity that examines how sensitive the regime's objective function is different decision-making institutions and initial conditions. Casual empricism and my experience with American schools suggests that the key problem is common ownership with multiple parties claiming the legitimate right to be "the regime." The ideological commitments of the polity should then determine the degree to which regime-ownership is contested. For example, the Christian Coalition and Americans United for Separation of Church and State are likely to have irreconcilable differences about the form and function of education, particularly if that education is financed or provided by the state.

I think this is an important contribution to the literature on positive political economy. I look forward to seeing how this project evolves and how it contributes to Dan Klein's project on "The People's Romance."

Posted by Art Carden at 05:28 PM in Economics

The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it. -Adam Smith

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