competition is as american as apple pie, except in education


Recently, I saw the above video on Facebook. Basically, it illustrates the argument that a public option in health care would compete against private insurers to the benefit of those covered under both kinds of plans. This argument seems like it is supposed to appeal to the market-minded among us, who are into competition amongst businesses. And “competition is as American as apple pie,” quoth

Now, I’m going to take the liberty of guessing that alot of people who are in favor of the public option also oppose school choice (in my experience, this is true, but feel free to take issue with this assumption in your comments). To the extent that their arguments for the public option are really about competition, their opposing school choice – which promotes competition amongst schools – is inconsistent with their position on health care.

Alternatively, perhaps this just exposes the fact that the proponents of the public option really don’t care about competition much at all, that it was just a strategic argument aimed at pro-business types, and that really they favor something about the state provision of important goods and services, like health care and education.

Thoughts anyone? I’m particularly interested in hearing from people who favor the public option but oppose school choice. Please explain to me your real position on competition, as I am confused. Thanks in advance.


  • Julian Modugno wrote:

    I’m pretty sure there’s already private options for schools….

  • Of course, thanks for mentioning that, Julian. It was a glaring oversight on my part. But the private schools aren’t really in competition with the public schools because you have to kind of pay twice to send your kid to private school – both the tuition, and your taxes. That stacks the deck against the private options. Furthermore, alot of people (many lower income, and some notably in Washington DC where a school choice program is controversially endangered), would prefer to take the money the government spends on their kid’s public school and put it towards a private school, because the public school is terrible. But most people can’t do that, because they have no choice where their kid’s education money goes. That’s not competition.

  • Peter Twieg wrote:

    I think the caveat that defenders of these positions would employ would be to say that competition commoditizes imputs and outputs, and this is bad when we’re talking about actual humans being in these roles. Competition for “insurance” is okay because there’s no dignity of insurance policies to defend – but competition in producing educated children reduces them to mere outputs optimized towards some end that goes against their interests qua humans.

    I think there’s also a worry that a really efficient market for education would result in super-dedicated capitalist drone laborers crowding Little Johnny out of the labor market. That’s why we need immigration quotas on Chinese migrants too.

    There’s also a huge amount of status quo bias here, I think. Point out to these people that a lot of northern European countries have very competitive voucher systems and…. well, I don’t know, I’m curious what they’d come up with.

  • Rich’s comment from Facebook:

    I’d say two things about this. First, the public option in health care does not involve taxpayer funding of religion, while school choice, as I understand it, does. Secondly, as a consequentialist, I would object to the presumption that one needs to have a uniform position on competition simpliciter. Rather, why not ask whether, in this particular … Read Moresphere of activity, competition better serves our purposes. If it does, groovy. If not–and especially if it hinders or defeats our purposes, then whatever collective fetish we may have about competition ought to be set aside so that changes can be made that get the job done.

    OK one more thing: If anything, adding a public option would make health care more closely analogous to the schools now, without school choice. If you’ve got the funds to send your kid to private school, you have that right; if you can’t afford it, the public schools are available to everyone as a matter of right. Adding a public health care option… Read More would still permit folks who can afford it to go the private route, while making it possible for everyone else to have insurance. School choice, then, would disrupt the analogy, because, unlike a public option in health care, the government would subsidize your choice of private providers of the service in question.

  • Thanks so much, Rich. You’ve really gotten me thinking.

    Religion: School choice sometimes does end up getting entangled with religion (and I share your worry over this), but there can certainly be requirements imposed on where you can use your voucher or which schools’ tuitions are tax deductible. I could say alot more about this, maybe I will make a separate post in the future.

    Consequentialism: I can respect that position, but there are good reasons to think that robust competition (even if not *totally* free-market) does promote good outcomes in both areas. So this just shifts the debate, although it’s still interesting and worthwhile to debate on consequentialist grounds. … Read More

    Finally, I do see the respect in which the public option makes health care more analogous to the school system now. But I *object* to the school system now, and would actually favor a system in which the government subsidizes lower income people buying health insurance or health services (or education) privately and of their own choosing over a public option. The bigger issue is: what is the default assumption for provision of these essential services, the public or private sector? I say private, and maybe let the state interfere where necessary. Others seem to be saying that the state should be the default provider of these and maybe other goods and services. That makes me very uncomfortable on a variety of grounds.

  • Peter,

    Definitely status quo bias is at work, I agree.

    As for commodification objections, yeah, I’m sure there’s that too. That sort of thing is also often said about organ markets, as I’m sure you know. I guess I just think that even public schools are guilty of commodification of children of some kind. No Child Left Behind sounded awfully Kantian/deontological, but, at the end of the day, stuff like standardized testing and ranking schools in terms of graduation rates is really all geared towards turning students into productive workers to grow the economy and not really about fully developing their human capacities or whatever.

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