Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Collective Freedom

The tension between individual freedom and collective action, between what the individual wants and what the community wants, between the needs of the many and the needs of the few-- that tension has been with us since Day One. Puritans came here to declare,"This will be a place where people are free to worship as they please-- as long as it's a form of worship we agree with." Southern colonists arrived declaring, "This will be a land in which every man's efforts can enrich him-- unless you're an indentured servant or a slave, in which case, your efforts are going to enrich me."

We have a Bill of Rights enumerating the rights possessed by every individual-- and a long and robust history of debate and case law determining where those rights actual stop in the name of the greater good (First Amendment does not cover yelling "fire" or even "elephant stampede" in a crowded theater, et al).

This, it should be noted, is not a tension limited to governance. To get married and become a part of a tiny family collective, you give up some of your personal freedom. That's how it works-- if you insist on acting as if you live in the land of Do As You Please, your little collective will fall apart (trust me on this). Membership in a group requires sacrifice of personal freedom.

As a nation we tend to lean toward individual freedom and away from collectivism. Even when we occasionally do Socialist things, we don't dare call it Socialism. Too much collective action and people start talking about the government "taking away my hard-earned money" or inflicting its will on our choices.

Some charter/voucher school fans like to frame the argument along these lines. The decry forcing students to go to "government" schools. Why shouldn't parents have the freedom to choose whatever school they like? Why be forced into some sort of collective (that, they claim, wastes a bunch of tax money anyway).

This framing is not accurate, and not just because no state has yet invested the kind of money or demanded the kind of accountability that would truly make all choices available to all parents. No, there's another reason this is a false characterization, a reason that charters and vouchers vs. public education is about the tension between freedom and society in a slightly different way.

There are areas of community life where we have decided to sacrifice individual freedom for the collective good (and thereby actually increase individual freedom).

Roadways. We could make every individual responsible for the roads that he personally uses-- building them, maintaining them-- but given the different resources the folks have and the interconnectedness required for roadways, we would end up with a higgledy-piggledy system that didn't really serve anyone particularly well. Back in the 19th century, folks in my community would get together and spend Saturday building a new road, a project nobody could have completed single-handedly. And it takes a national collective effort to create that marvel of the modern world-- the Interstate Highway System

Likewise, we could make every citizen form and hire her own personal army, but the resulting hodge-podge would not protect the country.

Education (surprise) is the other big example. Rather than just let each family locate their own personal tutor, communities decided that they had a stake in making sure that all children were educated (eg Puritans require a Godly community of Bible readers, therefor we need to teach everyone to read). Communities pooled resources and elected a board to manage those resources in response to community desires. The structure got stickier when we decided that since some communities didn't have sufficient resources, we would also pool resources on the state level.

As with roads and armies, the collective pooling of resources involved people who would rarely if ever use the items being produced. But their interested were still represented by their participation in the collective decision making. Even if you don't have a child in school, you can still run for school board, call board members, attend meetings and make a participatory nuisance of yourself. Everyone who helps pool the collective also has the option of participating in the collective decision-making.

Collectives require people to chip in, and they require some authority to decide how the various interests at play can be moderated so that everyone sort of gets something they kind of want. In some countries, that authority is some sort of emperor/beloved leader/tyrant. In our society, the idea is to elect folks for that job. Bottom line-- you put in some money, voice your opinion, and may or may not get exactly what you want.

Sometimes it takes the collective to get the job done. These decisions do not happen without debate. We're in the middle of an argument about whether or not health care should be such a collective effort or not. And there are always wealthy folks whose argument is something along the lines of, "We have no problem providing the roads and security that we need, and we provide it just the way we like it, so why should the government force us to be part of a collective effort by stealing our resources. And really, everybody should have the freedom to choose their own stuff the same way we do. What? They can't afford to? Well, wave this magic wand of free marketry at the problem; I'm sure those folks will be able to get what they deserve in no time at all."

Or to put it more succinctly, "I've got mine, Jack. Go pound sand."

There are several possible explanations for this. Rich folks are way hella rich. Super-rich. Buy your own city and run it the way you want rich. That and cooperation and compromise are taking a hit as shared values. Take music for a moment. Decades ago, we had to share air space. We listened to the radio station (one of only a few) we listened to music that the station believed the collective wanted. Decades ago when I chaperoned bus trips, negotiating the music we would all listen to was part of the challenge. Nowadays, we all curate our personal collection that we hear through our personal equipment. We get exactly what we personally want.

So is that all the charter/voucher revolution is? A bunch of parents just saying, "I want the school I want." And then just exercising their choice.

No, it's not. And here's why.

When it comes to bus ride music, we have done away with the collective. We don't pool resources or share decisions-- everyone just brings their own resources and makes do with that. No collective resources, no collective decisions.

But the charter/voucher revolution keeps the pooled resources part of public education. Everyone is still part of the collective resource pool. The collective decision-making is, however, gone.

Earlier this week I jumped off a post about Flat Earthers to ask charter/voucher fans how a charter/voucher system would deal with a school that was just wrong. I didn't get much of an answer. The public would never stand for it, one said-- but how exactly would the public's non-standing affect the charter school's existence? In a charter or voucher system, who steps in to say, "No, that can't be a school." I used the Flat Earth example because while we can all agree that the earth is not flat, we must also agree that there might be enough flat earthers out there to support a Flat Earth Charter school. Parents voting with their feet will not keep it from happening.

What charter/vouchers get us is collective resources managed in individual freedom mode (again, ignoring for the moment that the resources committed to such systems don't give parents anything remotely resembling the choices they are promised). By focusing on the individual parent decision, charteristas and voucherphiles try to make the argument that choice is super-democratic. It's not.

What is going on here is a bunch of parents saying, "I'm going to choose this private school for my kid, and you taxpayers have to pay for it whether you like it or not." Christian fundamentalists can spend tax dollars to send kids to a sharia law private school. Muslim taxpayers can pay to send students to a militantly anti-Islam private school. Black and brown taxpayers can pay to send white kids to a segregated private school.

Choice advocates have long made the point that education tax dollars don't belong to the public school-- they belong to the students. Neither of those is correct. The money belongs to the taxpayers. To distribute it without giving them any voice is literally taxation without representation. What charter/voucher systems continue to lack (well, one of the things they continue to lack) is accountability measures that insure taxpayers that their money is not being wasted. Is that conversation about what constitutes "waste" going to be difficult and contentious? Sure. And I wonder if part of the push behind charter/voucher systems is a desire to avoid that discussion ("I want to send my kid to a flat earth academy and I don't want to have to go through a bunch of crap to do it") But if you're going to be part of a community, city, state and nation, you can't just Do As You Please and maintain your membership.


  1. Another "spot-on" discussion of taxation without representation. Thanks for your good and enduring work!!

  2. If a picture is worth a thousand "Huzzah!"s, this should sum up my Huzzah! level here:

  3. "...(that, they claim, wastes a bunch of tax money anyway)."

    That is so much more than a parenthetical. If we could get people to understand that one concept the whole country could change course. The type of "freedom" that so many right-wingers (including those in the Democrat Party) are championing boils down to the freedom to be exploited by the most powerful players. It is only the combined force of the collective (the democratic state) that can keep the powerful few in check to provide true freedom for the many.

    1. Ooops. I realized I quoted the wrong parenthetical, which makes my subsequent comment rather baffling. Sorry about that. I should have quoted: "(and thereby actually increase individual freedom)"

  4. Important article by Greene. But it touches on a lot of topics in comparing things to education:
    1. Bill of Rights - Not a great comparison partially because of what Greene acknowledges - "enumerating the rights possessed by every individual". But second, the Constitution mainly consists of negative liberties - what the government cannot do. (Article 1, Sec 8 is different). So giving someone the freedom to practice their religion does not in any way take away or affect my right to do the same.
    2. Public Goods - As he has done in the past, Greene compares schools to other public goods like the military or roads. And yes, education is a public good. But as Greene explains, the military is not inherently divisible. (Actually, roads can be ascribed to the user which is the basis behind toll roads.) He answers his own question here - "Rather than just let each family locate their own personal tutor, communities decided that they had a stake in making sure that all children were educated." Notice the words "were educated" rather than making sure that everyone had a school. To some, these two ideas are necessarily synonymous. But they aren't as I illustrate below.
    3.Music - Greene recognizes that we no longer need to aggregate our music choices into relatively few music stations. "When it comes to bus ride music, we have done away with the collective. We don't pool resources or share decisions-- everyone just brings their own resources and makes do with that." But that dismisses the point too readily. We have simply decided that giving everyone music is not an entitlement, though education is. But just for a minute, imagine Greene's retort was met. Everyone was given money for a music streaming membership. Resources would be collected broadly (just as they are for schools). But each student would still be able to express their particular choice. Sound ideal ? That's the education reform's model.

    I concede that Greene makes fair points about inherent racism expressed through education reform. "Black and brown taxpayers can pay to send white kids to a segregated private school." However, educational freedom does not absolve schools from the other laws which are already in place. Consider the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prevents "public accommodations" (which includes schools) from discriminating on the basis of race, gender, etc. Just like the example of streaming music, aren't we all better off when we can express our own choice - of course, subject to the laws which we have agreed ?

    1. Alan,

      The definition of "public good" used by economists is that the good is not rival (my use or consumption of the good does not impact your use or consumption of the good) and not excludable (I an not be prevented from using or consuming the good once it is produced). On both counts, education is not a public good (nor are roads), though national defense does count as a public good.

      What definition of public good are you using?

    2. TE, who cares what the technical definition of public good is according to economists? Obviously we're talking about a community pooling resources for something that is good for the whole community.

      Alan, your music streaming idea would work for education if taxpayers decided it was in the whole community's interest to pay for all individuals' choices without the whole community's input; if there were truly a plethora of choices, as there is with music; and if all the choices cost about the same, so that whatever money went to the individual would cover any choice. I don't see that happening.

      There's something to be said for discussion, cooperation, and compromise, which is lost when everybody goes off in their own little corner and does their own thing. Not being rich enough to buy each of my three kids everything they wanted was good for them, as they had to learn to share, make do, and get along.

    3. Rebecca,

      I know the definition economists use, I am interested in the definition that Alan is using.

      Clearly a community could pool resources and produce food that the community eats or pool resources and produce buildings to shelter the community. Some communities have done this in the past, some communities continue to do this. Does that make food and shelter public goods as well? Is it possible that education is a public good in some communities, but in other communities, where they do not pool resources to produce education for the whole community, education is not a public good?

    4. Yes, in those societies food and shelter are public goods. And it used to be that education was not a public good and only the wealthy were educated. A public good is anything that the whole collective decides that it's important for the whole society for everyone to have and they can't all get it by themselves. But I'm not aware of any country that at the present time doesn't think that education is a public good, whether or not they do a good job of providing it.

    5. @ TeachingEconomist - My undergraduate degree was in Economics - but it's been a very long time. The classic example of a "public good" is fireworks - and I believe this meets your definition. It is rival (in that your enjoyment of the fireworks shooting in the air does not take away from me doing the same) and it is not excludable (in that you cannot deprive someone of enjoying fireworks). The latter is the key rationale for taxation of public goods. I can say that I don't really like fireworks and therefore don't want to pay for them. But I really do like them. However, I realize that because they are non-excludable, I can enjoy them whether I say I like them (and therefore pay for them) or not.

      By the way, this is the classic "free rider" problem that unions complain about regarding "right to work" - that non-union employees benefit from the negotiation efforts of the union yet do not pay dues. (They forget to mention that this legitimate problem is a consequence of "exclusive representation" state laws that the unions helped enact.)

      And yes, by that formal definition of a public good, the military meets the definition but education does not. (I'd argue that roads DO meet this definition in some respects. A corollary to non-excludability is complete fixed costs (like fireworks). On the other hand, road costs can be ascribed to users using tolls.)

      A broader definition of public good, however, are goods are services that as a society, we have decided to provide regardless of someone's ability to pay. Education meets this definition - but a specific provider or school (including government as a provider) does not.

      To me, the clear (though imperfect) analogy is Pell Grants for colleges. Sure, government is a provider of college education. And some of them do a good job and are highly desired. But they do NOT have a monopoly (regardless of the fixed cost arguments that Greene has made in the past). Rather, they compete with other colleges which are not government sourced (though almost all of them are non-profit). In large part, that's why our college system is the envy of the world.

      (Again, it's not a perfect analogy as I'm sure critics of reform will point out. For one thing, Pell grants generally can only fund a portion of college expenses. And yes, that's a valid argument against most vouchers. But charters are a different story specifically because the "ticket" with which a family is given enables them to fully pay for any school - charter or district - and therefore meets this broader definition of public good.)

    6. Rebecca,

      Interesting. When economists say that something is a public good, there is the implication that the government ought to produce the good because decentralized markets will do a poor job of producing the good.

      You are using the term as an observation about what the government is doing at a particular time and place, without any suggestion that the government should or should not produce the good.

      There are societies where significant number of students attend private schools among OECD countries. In Hong Kong it is over 90%, in the Netherlands and Dubai it is over 60%, and in Ireland and Chile it is over 50% (source: Would you say that these countries do not think that education is a public good?

    7. TE, I'm going on the definition that I infer from what Peter wrote: that in a democracy, a public good is something the society thinks is necessary for everyone to have for the good of the whole society, and if it's thought that individuals can't all attain it by themselves, the society pools its resources to provide it for everyone. I don't see that it necessarily has to be produced by the government, but in a democracy, if it's done wth taxpayer money, taxpayers need to have a say in how the money is used.

      I would say that in "primitive" hunter/forager societies, food and perhaps shelter were considered a public good. Healthcare also, as everyone had access to the shaman or healer. In more "advanced" (complex) societies, it's assumed that most individuals working within the economy (if the economy is working right) will be able to acquire food and shelter for themselves, although members who are handicapped in some way may still need help, and using pooled resources via government taxes is the surest way to make sure they are provided for. In a non-democratic society such as feudalism, education was not considered a public good. It's not necessary for serfs to be educated; in fact, it's better for the oligarchs if they're not. If a society were egalitarian but not highly complex, it would be possible for people to become educated without pooled resources; if all people were highly educated and had the time, parents could teach their children and you wouldn't need schools. I don't know that such a society has ever existed.

      In today's complex, highly specialized society, even if all parents were highly educated, children would be limited to their parents' specialties, and with the type of economy we have, most parents would not have time. But for a democratic society to work, citizens need to be educated and informed, and for the economy to work, people need skills, and most people can't pay a tutor or a private school, so education is considered a public good. If our economy were truly "advanced", then everyone would earn enough for a private tutor or a private school, and education would not have to be considered a public good.

      I can't give an opinion on whether the countries you mentioned consider education a public good, because I don't know how the private schools are paid for, if it's from pooled resources or not.