Taken from The Problem with Socialism, by Thomas DiLorenzo:
Imagine that the grocery industry was organized in the following way: every residence is assigned by the government to the nearest neighborhood grocery store where it must purchase its groceries. There are heavy penalties for anyone caught shopping at an alternative grocery store. All groceries are paid for with an annual lump-sum tax collected by the local government. Anyone can then walk into her assigned grocery store and pick up whatever she wants, and local governments boast about their “free public groceries.
It is possible to shop elsewhere, but one must then pay twice—once with the grocery tax, and then a second time by paying cash for the alternative groceries. Consequently, only the more affluent can afford to have any real freedom of choice.
All employees of the grocery stores are paid the same according to whichever seniority group they belong to. More seniority means higher pay, but everyone with the same seniority level is paid the same. If there are too many checkout clerks and not enough butchers, the public employees’ grocers union prohibits paying butchers more to alleviate the butcher shortage; it also opposes merit pay. That would be un-egalitarian.
It is almost impossible “to fire a grocery store employee for any reason except criminality. Depending on the city, most grocery employees received job tenure after three years.
Grocery store employees who are grossly incompetent and negligent are routinely promoted up and out, since they can’t be fired, and given jobs at the central grocery administrative offices: hence the saying, “those who can stack shelves, do; those who can’t become central grocery administrators.” Because they are “public servants” they are granted lavish taxpayer-funded pensions—far more lavish than anything most private sector taxpayers have—and liberal vacation time, and the salaries for administrators are far higher than they would merit in a private business.
If the grocery stores are so badly run that food rots on the shelves and their spending exceeds their budgets, or if the grocery workers go on strike, the grocery tax is simply increased, because every politician wants to be in favor of “free groceries;” no one wants to be an “enemy of the poor and the hungry,” and certainly no one wants the grocery stores to close down, even temporarily, because of the stores’ virtual monopoly.
I once presented this scenario to a class of under graduate economics students and asked them whether a grocery system like this would be very efficient at holding down food costs and providing good food products. Of course they laughed. And when I asked if the system sounded familiar, a twenty-year-old college junior blurted out “Communism!” After a few moments of silence another student said “public schools!” They were both right.
Government-run public schools suffer the same problems as any other socialist enterprise. A private school has to compete for students. If a private school fails to serve the needs and expectations of its customers (parents), it loses money, it loses market share, and it could eventually go out of business. A government-run school enjoys a virtual monopoly, especially among the poor, who can’t afford a private school; and as with all monopolies, the convenience of administrators and employees comes before the needs of the customers, because the customers will always be there. They have no choice.
As with all government enterprises, the incentives are perverse: the worse the job they do in teaching children, the more money that is typically given to the public schools, because everyone wants to “improve” education, even if there is rarely, if ever, any evidence that the additional money is helping students to learn more rather than simply paying failing teachers and administrators more and providing the schools with more facilities or programs of dubious educational value. Imagine if corporations behaved in this way—raising prices—in response to consumers walking away in droves because of their tasteless food, dangerous automobiles, shoddy clothing, or whatever. It sounds absurd, yet that is the modus operandi of all public schools everywhere.
Affluent areas have better public schools than poor areas not because the former have more tax money than the latter, but because affluent parents can afford to send their children to private schools. That mere threat of competition forces public schools in affluent areas to do better, despite the education bureaucracy. As with so many socialistic schemes, the public school near-monopoly on education hurts the poor most of all.
More money for poor schools is not the answer. Per-student spending in U.S public schools was more than two-and-a-half times higher in 2013 than it was in 1970, in inflation-adjusted dollars ($4,060 compared to $10,700).1 Real, inflation-adjusted spending increased substantially in every state and the District of Columbia (which spent $17,953 per student in 2013).2 During that time, national reading scores remained flat and the graduation rate increased by only a miniscule percentage. The black student graduation rate lags behind the white public school student graduation rate by about twenty percentage points (59.1 percent to 80.6 percent in one recent year), which is not surprising when you consider that black students are far less likely to attend public schools that have to compete with nearby private schools. A Cato Institute study found that after a near tripling of per-student spending on public schools in real, inflation-adjusted dollars, and a more than doubling of public school employees over forty years, student achievement in both math and verbal skills actually declined.
One would be hard pressed to find any private enterprise that had declining production, performance, or sales after massive infusions of capital (outside of government-subsidized businesses like Solyndra). Would anyone expect a restaurant that doubled its staff to serve fewer dinners? Would a grocery store chain that built more stores sell fewer groceries? Would UPS deliver fewer packages if it hired a thousand more drivers? Only in monopolistic, socialistic enterprises like the public schools does one find the absurdity of paying far more for the service and getting nothing in return.
No more than half of all the increased taxpayer funding for public schools ends up in the classroom (teachers’ salaries, instructional materials, and so on). The rest is eaten up by layers and layers of bureaucracy, not to mention all the capital spending on buildings and facilities. Private schools have to spend their money efficiently, because they operate for profit. Public schools actually have incentives to spend more—to show off their shiny new buildings or to set spending ever higher to justify even more budget increases—but no incentive to spend efficiently; efficient spending, after all, would mean fewer bureaucrats, fewer bureaucratic regulations, and pay based on performance.
Government-run schools are increasingly weighed down by bureaucratic mandates imposed by government at all levels, including the federal government, which is becoming an ever larger source of taxpayer funding of government schools. In many states there is so much detailed regulation of the local schools that teachers are given orders regarding how many minutes per day they must teach history, math, and other subjects.
The government-run schools in the socialist regimes of the twentieth century were indoctrination academies that taught obedience to the state. Plank ten of the ten-point agenda in The Communist Manifesto called for “Free education for all children in public schools.” The twenty-five-point program of the Nazi Party similarly demanded that “The conception of the State Idea . . . must be taught in the schools from the very beginning.” Government-run schools in democratic countries, being in the hands of politicians and government bureaucrats, inevitably become propaganda factories. Murray Rothbard showed in his book Education, Free and Compulsory, that the founding fathers of the public school movement in America were themselves ideological egalitarians and statists. Mandates like Common Core, supported by the federal Department of Education, or state mandates like California’s Fair Education Act (popularly known as the “gay history bill”), are imposed in the name of “standards” or “fairness,” but in fact they are often shackles on how and what teachers can teach and students can think. They can do this because schooling is compulsory, because many parents consider that they don’t have a choice of schools, and every mandate strips parents of control of their schools, putting more power in the hands of bureaucrats. Among the virtues of a free market in education would be not just competition on price and performance, but competition for best suiting the needs and interests of parents and students; as the customers, they would be in charge. Schools would be in the business of best serving parents and their children or going bust.
Private schools, or homeschoolers, are not beyond the reach of state of course, as they have to meet “certification” requirements or testing requirements and so forth, but at least they stand as reminders to the state that children belong to their parents, not the government.
Public schools, on the other hand, because they are run by the government, are incubators of political correctness and inculcate statist assumptions, including the idea that it is normal for the state to have a near-monopoly on education. Rothbard went so far as to say that government-run education produces “a race of passive sheep-like followers of the state” and teaches “the doctrine of state supremacy.”
The never-ending quest for uniformity, common cores, and “equality” destroys independent thought, almost by definition. As H. L. Mencken once wrote, “The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane, and intolerable.”
Excerpt From: Thomas DiLorenzo. “The Problem with Socialism.”
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