Public Education


Somebody I care much about recently sent me this image. The quote is by John Green, a young author of several books. As much as I care about the person who sent the image to me (and I care a lot), I have to say that this quote is a great example of how statements that appeal to the most basic of our emotions and seem irresistibly right at first sight, are often plagued by fallacies, tend to be fundamentally wrong and could even be dangerous…

  1. The first fallacy is almost too obvious. Can we really say that people with no education are stupid? Mr. Green needs to exercise a bit of prudence here. There are, of course, millions of examples of people who had little or no education but were brilliant, honest and productive…and made history and built entire nations…(Did you know that Benjamin Franklin did not have any formal education?)
  2. But more importantly, Mr. Green builds his case for public education (i.e. government education) by using the perennial argument of the positive externality – but completely forgetting the negative externality associated with it! Let me explain. Let’s assume that people who receive government education are better citizens because of it. They communicate better, understand other people better, drive better, are more productive, etc. Arguably then, people who interact with these educated individuals receive a benefit even if they themselves did not get educated, i.e. they receive a positive externality. One could even make the case that the positive externality has ripple positive effects all over the economy (society). While all of that could be true, we can never forget that providing government education (and producing the positive externality) is not free. The government must tax people to pay for it. And this imposition (taxes are not voluntary) generate a symmetric negative externality. The money paid in taxes could have been used for other (perhaps equally or even more important) activities and everybody who those activities would have benefited would never receive those benefits. Is the positive externality bigger than the negative one? Hard to say. The way government education has been decaying in quality in this country, however, I would bet the answer is no.
  3. And even more importantly, Mr. Green says that he “likes to pay taxes for schools” but, in his defense of government education, he seems to be fine denying the same pleasure to others. That is, the pleasure of doing what one likes or considers right and not what others like or consider one should do. If Mr. Green likes to donate money for government education he should be entitled to do it (we will even applaud him and buy more of his books) but if somebody else doesn’t, then he or she should not be forced to do it. That is, unfortunately, what taxes do. They force people to pay for what somebody considers the “right” thing to do.
  4. Lastly, to say that government education exists for the benefit of “the social order” is just an inch short of the North Korean utopia. What is the “social order”? Is it one in which we have government education because some people believe that the positive externality is bigger than the negative one? What about the basic human rights and opinion of those who believe the opposite? Even if you believe with all your heart (as Mr. Green seems to do) that government education produces a large positive externality, does that give you the right to impose that “social order” to others? And that is when this type of quotes become dictatorially dangerous.

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