(Guest post by Greg Forster)
Over the past two weeks we’ve basically gone back to basics and done a ground up survey of why competition is preferable to technocracy (“scientifically” determine the “best” reforms and then strongarm schools into doing them).
Jay’s last post in particular, outlining why it’s better to build whole new institutions than try to gradually develop programmatic reforms within existing ones, made me want to step in with this point:
I think we who emphasize competition between different school models need to quit relying so heavily on the word “market” to describe the mechanism we’re trying to create. I’m not saying we should never use the word, I just think we’ve invested too heavily in it. Let’s focus on competition between different school models. If we can get people that far, which I think is very doable – consider how business-savvy the cool kids are; they know that competition is good and healthy – then we can let people think and discover what kind of mechanism creates that kind of competition. The realization that this mechanism is really a “market” can come later, or even never. Call it a bannana split if you want!
It’s bad enough that the word “market” is misleading to the many people who have limited conceptions of what a “market” is. For many if not most people “market” conjures up images of widget factories and green-eyeshade negotiations in which dollars and cents matter most. And you simply cannot deal with that by telling people that isn’t what a market “really” is. In a society like ours with no general social agreement on what counts as knowledge and meaning, it simply isn’t possible any longer to correct people’s misuse of words by telling them that the word “really” means something else. Not to them it doesn’t! And who are you to tell them their meaning is “wrong” while yours is “right”?
But more importantly, I think shallow thinking about what counts as a “market” has infected too many people in the school choice movement itself. On Jay’s post I left a comment with a snippit from this 1988 article by Milton Friedman:
In some ways, referring to “the market” puts the discussion on the wrong basis. The market is not a cow to be milked; neither is it a sure-fire cure for all ills.
Well, here’s a passage from that article that I think the school choice movement would do well to ponder. Discussing the privatization of government-owned monopolies, with particular concern for the opening up of China’s economy, Milton writes:
One way to overcome the opposition to privatization, widely used in Britain is, as described by Robert Pool,
To identify potential opponents and cut them in on the deal, general by means of stock ownership. The specific applications of the principle are (1) employee stock ownership, and (2) popular capitalism…
A pitfall to be avoid in adopting such expedients is to sweeten the deal by converting a government monopoly into a private monopoly – which may be an improvement but falls far short of the desirable outcome. The U.S. Postal Service illustrates that pitfall as well as the fallacy that mimicking the form of private enterprise can achieve the substance. It was established as a supposedly independent government corporation that would not be subject to direct political influence and that would operate on market principles. That has hardly been the outcome, and understandably so. It remained a monopoly and did not develop a strong private interest in efficiency.
Isn’t that what we’re doing in the school choice movement now? Not a single existing school choice program – not one – is designed in a way that is attractive and supportive for educational entrepreneurs who want to create new school models? Re-read Jay’s post about creating new institutions that reinvent the school from the ground up. If you were one of the cool kids and wanted to start a school like that, would any of the existing school choice programs be attractive to you? Or are we just transitioning from a government monopoly system to a public/private oligopoly in which a small group of powerful school systems (government, Catholic, and a few others) divide the spoils and keep entrepreneurs outside in the cold?
Something to think about, anyway.