a state guaranteed education?

The first comments that struck me while reading Harry Brighouse‘s interesting article, “What’s Wrong With Privatising Education?,” were the following, made in response to some arguments made by James Tooley in favor of privatizing schools:

“Tooley himself sometimes endorses a principle that we might call the ‘Adequacy Principle’, that everyone has a right to a sufficiently good education for them to function adequately in the economy they will face as adults (Tooley, 1995). Let us put aside questions about what counts as ‘functioning adequately’ in the economy, and the problems with Tooley’s arguments for the Adequacy Principle (Brighouse, 1998). And suppose, empirically, that Tooley is right in his conjecture that under a fully privatised regime (almost) all children would, in fact have sufficient resources devoted to their education. The mere fulfilment of the Adequacy Principle would not vindicate privatisation. Justice requires the adequacy principle be fulfilled, so it is not sufficient for it merely to be fulfilled; its fulfilment has to be guaranteed. A privatised scheme would have to be continually monitored by a state standing ready to intervene should any child or children fail to receive the adequate education required, because the state has to act as the ultimate guarantor of justice.” (p. 618)

I was reminded of the passage above when I read this recent post by Jason Brennan at the new and wonderful Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog. Some relevant excerpts:

Many laypeople and philosophers who lack training in the social sciences conclude that to guarantee people will be free in the positive sense, citizens need legal guarantees that they will be supplied with adequate resources.

One reason that settling on a definition of liberty doesn’t tell us what government should do is that even if X is a valuable species of liberty, it might not be something that other people owe me… Another reason why settling on a definition of liberty doesn’t tell us what government should do is that it’s often an empirical question whether government can be effective at promoting liberty so defined. We must instead examine historical, sociological, and economic evidence to see what actually happens when people rely on any institution, including a government, to play a given role.

Do we want government to issue legal guarantees that we will all enjoy positive liberty? It depends on what happens when government issues guarantees. There is a difference between guaranteeing as rendering inevitable (as when an economist says quadrupling the minimum wage would guarantee rising unemployment) versus guaranteeing as expressing a firm intention or issuing a legal declaration. Clearly, guaranteeing something in the latter sense is no real guarantee.

Brighouse believes that, if something (like an education) is owed to someone as a matter of justice, then it is not enough for the appropriate actors (state officials? voters?) to have observed that that good is reliably provided by non-state means (e.g., the free market, NGOs, charities, etc). Rather, the state must have had an active hand in providing the good itself to have discharged its obligation (presumably this will involve at least the state’s funding of schools, if not outright running them), or have stood ready to intervene in the private sector should it fail to provide the good (presumably this involves a great deal of regulatory apparatuses).

To be sure, this is not a crazy position. There is something weird and unsettling about thinking that we can just leave matters of justice kind of to chance. But, from a non-ideal point of view, we must consider the possibility that the chances of a good’s being provided to someone may actually be higher when the state does not have an active hand in providing and/or regulating it. This matters, because the whole reason that something is treated as a “matter of justice” in the first place is because it’s something quite important that we do, or should, care deeply about people receiving.

Whether or not it’s ever actually the case that an adequate education could be more reliably provided by non-state mechanisms will be a complicated empirical matter. I have in mind the sort of argument that E.G. West makes in “Education and the State.” The book is not primarily a work of philosophy; rather it’s a semi-philosophical work of political economy. West provides evidence suggesting that the beginning state interference in education crowded out the private sector in both England and the U.S., which was previously burgeoning in both. (For a condensed version of the argument, see this article at The Freeman). There are many holes to fill in this picture – Of what quality was the private education? Which students were not being educated, and why? Would there have been any effective ways of providing for students left out of the private system other than instituting universal education that is funded and provided by the state? However, it’s at least possible that a student’s chances of receiving a quality education in either country was actually lower upon the advent of universal public education.

In article referenced above, Brighouse is responding to James Tooley, who has extensively studied private education in developing countries and who argues, from his findings, that education is generally better off (i.e., more accessible and of higher quality) when kept privately run (if still publicly funded). Tooley has, and offers, reason to believe that one’s probability of receiving a quality education in some places (e.g., some cities in India, rural China) is higher when it is not provided by the state.  However, since we’re doing thoroughly non-ideal work here, this conclusion, even if strong, will not generalize. We need to examine, for each area in question, what reasons we have to believe that the public and private education sectors will succeed or fail. Political obstacles to quality public education will be greater in some areas than in others, for instance. And socio-cultural factors that affect families’ decision making regarding education will also vary.

Reasonable people may disagree as to the empirical aspects of any given case of public vs. private provision of a good. But the possibility that a good may be more reliably provided by non-state mechanisms raises serious questions about the concept of justice and of how far we are willing to go in insisting that the state provide a good or service even when that will result in fewer people receiving it, or in their receiving a good or service of lower quality. To echo Brennan: “We must… examine historical, sociological, and economic evidence to see what actually happens when people rely on any institution, including a government, to play a given role.” The language of a state “guarantee” to education distracts us from seriously considering what the actual predictable and/or observable outcomes of public, private, or mixed institutions will be and how those outcomes will impact citizens’ welfare. To engage in this consideration is not to ignore the demands of justice; it may even allow us to respect them more fully.


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