Thursday, November 6, 2008

But What About the Poor? (Education Edition)

On the LvMI message board, a common question was posed:

Hey guys just a basic question. How would the really really poor afford school for their kids under a complete free market system?? I mean what if a family was extremely poor?? It seems to me that this is a tough question to answer when I am asked it.

The conversation had already started by the time I saw the question, but I figured I'd throw in my two cents (which, of course, had expanded to about $3.50 by the time I was done). I thought it might be worthwhile to re-post my response here:

Well one way people could be provided for would be through voluntary community organizations aimed at ensuring certain kinds of social outcomes. For example, a home-owners' association could design a policy by which members who could not afford to send their kids to school would be granted financial support. Or individuals might participate in mutual aid societies which could perform similar functions.

As others have noted, we might also imagine the emergence of charitable institutions designed to help needy children afford an education, and it would be surprising to find schools failing to offer financial assistance in a decentralized educational system, given that most private schools already do so today.

Additionally, some children might be able to secure financial assistance for an education more directly aimed at preparing them for success in the workforce, where the ability to repay loans would likely be better and the education itself less costly. I have in mind here vocational schools with less emphasis on a broad liberal arts education and more emphasis on technical skills that would help children participate in the work force.

What we might find, however, in a radically decentralized system is that in communities that didn't place a high value on children receiving a broad liberal arts education, many children would end up going without one. It is somewhat reasonable to expect that given the sheer financial profitability of some level of education for a child, most families would be able to afford to have their children educated to some extent. But some facets of a liberal arts education may not be profitable in a financial sense, instead producing value for the child in the form of a rich life and improved intellect.

A proponent of radical decentralization would need to ask herself: In the event that charitable individuals and organizations in a community did not feel that a broad liberal arts education for needy children was worthy of supporting, and such an education would simply fall outside of the means of some families, would it be permissible to coercively take money from some individuals in order to ensure a liberal arts education for all children? If so, who would be justified in doing so, and how would they have to administer the support? Further, is failing to support a liberal arts education for poor children a violation of a duty, such that it would be morally impermissible to defend yourself against someone coercing you to do so?

I think that a case can be made on both sides in this debate, but ultimately I would expect to see the issue to be a moot point in most communities. As mentioned above, there are a number of mechanisms by which education could be supported in a decentralized system, and I would be surprised if we really ended up with communities where parents wanted to send their children to school, but simply couldn't find a way to afford it. It could be that in some communities, poor children might end up with more "practical" (i.e. market-participation-oriented) educations, which could be very regrettable. But the upshot is that these children would likely grow up to be able to afford better educations for their own children. And I would imagine that many communities would offer the kinds of assistance necessary to ensure that all children received a broad education, regardless of financial background.

Ultimately, though, what's needed is not an immediate abolition of the current educational system, but rather a movement away from centralized planning and towards more decentralized, competitive provision. Once we commit to that trend, we can start debating about the intricacies of a radically decentralized system. For now, we should focus on the area on which I think we share common ground: this is not an issue in which the federal government needs to interfere.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Many communities would probably choose to impose a tax that would go to the support of the poor. If you didn't want to pay the tax you would have to leave the community.

Danny Shahar said...

Hi there! I tried to capture that sort of possibility when I wrote:

"Well one way people could be provided for would be through voluntary community organizations aimed at ensuring certain kinds of social outcomes. For example, a home-owners' association could design a policy by which members who could not afford to send their kids to school would be granted financial support. Or individuals might participate in mutual aid societies which could perform similar functions."

I didn't mean to suggest that the list was exhaustive of the possibilities for centralized collective provision of educational services. But is there a reason why you bring that up?

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