Grocery School

by Don Boudreaux on April 24, 2011

in Complexity & Emergence, Cooperation, Education

Suppose that we were supplied with groceries in same way that we are supplied with K-12 education.

Residents of each county would pay taxes on their properties.  A huge chunk of these tax receipts would then be spent by government officials on building and operating supermarkets.  County residents, depending upon their specific residential addresses, would be assigned to a particular supermarket.  Each family could then get its weekly allotment of groceries for “free.”  (Department of Supermarket officials would no doubt be charged with the responsibility for determining the amounts and kinds of groceries that families of different types and sizes are entitled to receive.)

Except in rare circumstances, no family would be allowed to patronize a “public” supermarket outside of its district.

Residents of wealthier counties – such as Fairfax County, VA and Somerset County, NJ – would obviously have better-stocked and more attractive supermarkets than would residents of poorer counties.  Indeed, the quality of public supermarkets would play a major role in determining people’s choices of neighborhoods in which to live.

Of course, thanks to a long-ago U.S. Supreme Court decision, families would be free to shop at private supermarkets that charge directly for the groceries they offer; such private-supermarket families, though, would get no discount on their property-tax bills.

When the quality of supermarkets is recognized by nearly everyone to be dismal, the resulting calls for “supermarket choice” would be rejected by a coalition of greedy government-supermarket workers and ideologically benighted collectivists as attempts to cheat supermarket customers out of good supermarket service – indeed, as attempts to deny ordinary families the food that they need for their very survival.  Such ‘choice,’ it would be alleged, will drain precious resources from the public supermarkets whose (admittedly) poor performance testifies to the fact that these supermarkets are underfunded.

And the small handful of people who call for total separation between supermarket and state would be criticized by nearly everyone as being, at best, delusional and – it would be thought more realistically – more likely misanthropic devils who are indifferent to the malnutrition and starvation that would sweep the land if only private market forces governed the provision and patronizing of supermarket.  (Some indignant observers would even wonder aloud at the insensitivity of referring to grocery shoppers as “customers”; surely the relationship between suppliers of life-giving foods and the people who need these foods is not so crass as to be properly discussed as being ‘commercial.’)


Does anyone believe that such a system for supplying groceries would work well, or even one-tenth as well as the current private, competitive system that we currently rely upon for supplying grocery-retailing services?  To those of you who might think so, pardon me but you’re nuts.

To those of you who understand that such a system for supplying grocery-retailing services would be a catastrophe, why might you continue to count yourself in the ranks of those who believe that government schooling (especially the way it is currently funded and supplied) is the system that we should continue to use?

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Andrew_M_Garland April 25, 2011 at 4:00 pm

This is another analogy, which explains our problems in healthcare.

The Medicare Tomato Market

Say that tomatoes were declared vital to life and made available free through the Medicare National Tomato Bank. This translates the story of the healthcare “system” to the tomato market.

PrometheeFeu April 25, 2011 at 5:03 pm

While I am not a fan of public education at all, I think the analogy is incorrect for a number of reasons:
1) The feedback loop on the quality of food is very fast. You put it in your mouth an immediately know whether your purchase decision was a good one or not and 24 hours later you have confirmation regarding the safety of the product. With education, you can have graduated and still not have the slightest idea whether your education was a good one or not. A long run study on the other hand could give you the information you need but only if you pay close attention. Most of us don’t have the time to pay attention so we pay others (politicians/bureaucrats) to pay attention for us.
2) You eat the food at the supermarket. Your kids go to school. While many people have the best interests of their children at heart, there are serious incentive issues which could cause you to send your kids to a sub-standard school. You generally don’t have an incentive to feed yourself sub-standard food.
3) You have a direct influence on your ability to obtain good food by paying higher prices. On the other hand, if a child is born to a poor family, they have absolutely no control over the fact that they would be unable to go to a more expensive private school.

This is not to say those problems can’t be addressed more effectively through more market-based solutions (such as vouchers, private rating agencies and default enrollment) than the current bureaucrat-based system. But it is simplistic to say that public schools are like public supermarkets. There are many relevant differences.

Don Boudreaux April 25, 2011 at 5:17 pm

I have a Q&A session with for my class in just a few minutes, so I cannot now respond to this comment as fully as I’d like. But I will ask (along the lines of others who responded earlier in this thread to Allison): Do you have children?

I have a son who will soon turn 14. He’s been in private school all of his life. His mother and I have a damn good sense of what he is and isn’t learning in school. We know if he’s being pushed too lightly or too hard.

More fundamentally, even though it’s true that no parents will ever have perfect knowledge of how the schools are educating (or not) their children, what earthly reason is there to imagine that government bureaucrats and politicians will have better knowledge?

What mechanism do you believe is in place – what real-world mechanism that either is in, or could realistically be put into, place – to ensure that government schools (esp. MONOPOLY government schools with a funding base largely independent of their customers’ choices) will supply the ‘right’ kind of schooling for those school-children whose parents are presumably so dumb and impervious that they (parents) have no good way to tell what their kids are learning in school?

Allison April 25, 2011 at 5:53 pm


This is a straw man: “More fundamentally…, what earthly reason is there to imagine that government bureaucrats and politicians will have better knowledge?”

NO ONE SAID THEY DID. Stop knocking down straw men!

My problem was not with the idea that public education isn’t working, or even that it should be abolished for the middle class. My problem was with your analogy, which does not take into account just how far schools are from grocery stores at allowing timely information about the value of the goods at the store to reach the consumer.

Find a better analogy. Cars and houses aren’t good analogies either, as I pointed out, because even in those cases, once you’ve determined you’ve got a bad deal, there’s no remediation necessary if you buy a good one. You aren’t carrying years of bad driving on your new car or house.

kyle8 April 25, 2011 at 6:33 pm

I simply do not agree with you that it is a bad analogy. Your reasons for saying it was a bad analogy do not pan out.

For the majority of the public parents are intimatly concerned with their childrens education. If all schools were for profit, and poor children were directly subsidized so that they had some choice as to their school, then ALL OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE tells us they woul be better and would cost less than the government monopoly schools.

Carl Pham April 25, 2011 at 8:33 pm

You are aware, I hope, that an analogy is not an identity? By definition there must be SOME differences between the thing analogized and the thing itself. Your ability to find a distinction is insufficient proof that the analogy is bad, that is. You need to find an important distinction. The idea that parents are clueless about the quality of education their children are getting is ludicrous, if not offensive in that way that “We Know Better Than You” way that educrats love.

My guess as to why we accept public education is historical accident, based around the fact that it got going in an age when one could not realistically borrow major costs. Parents with young children are usually strapped for cash, while they are more flush later in middle-age, when the children are teenagers. Under those circumstances, it makes sense to borrow from your middle-aged self to fund your young married self’s wish to purchase a good education for your kids.

Nowadays, you can do that through loans and such. But 120 years ago, the only way for the common schmo to do it was through intergenerational wealth transfer using the tax system. Obviously a crude mechanism, but serviceable when few common folks have access to good credit instruments.

Additionally, we should keep in mind the evolution from the money-poor rural co-op school, in which a fair amount of the community support would be non-monetary (help raising the schoolhouse, food and shelter for the teacher).

Finally, let us recall public schools originally started with almost entirely local control and local financing, really not much more than a co-op effort among parents (of which there are plenty of private versions today). Where it became corrupt and screwy is when responsibility for its funding and power over its operation was transferred to the state level, and even Federal level these days. The major fault with public school is that local parents organizations do not directly fund them, and cannot directly control them.

Methinks1776 April 25, 2011 at 8:33 pm

Allison, I’ve read all your complaints. I don’t think the problem is Don’s analogy. I think the problem is that you don’t understand the analogy.

Matt M April 25, 2011 at 8:43 pm

I disagree with your conclusion that a major flaw in the analogy between education and groceries is the ability to asses long term value. There are many examples of food products that have entered the market only to be recalled years later after the dicovery of negative health effects. While you can never totally eliminate the possiblity of bad outcomes your assertion gives too little credit to human’s ability to mitigate risk privately. It is also important to remember that the goal of a post like this is not, I’m assuming, to find the most exact comparison available, but rather to draw comparisons that may shed some new light and stimulate further discovery.

I believe Don’s response did answer your question, you just weren’t looking. Inherent in your concern about private education is the assumption that somewhere there is a better method for assessing the long term effectiveness of education than private indivuals pusuing their own interest in an open market. I don’t believe there is.

PrometheeFeu April 25, 2011 at 6:32 pm

I don’t think you fully read my post Don. I most emphatically agree that parents know more than state bureaucrats about what their kids may be learning. The point I was making is that:
1) Some non-trivial portion of the effects of education is not immediate learning outcomes but rather long-term effects on your ability to learn and a variety of other skills. Those things are significantly harder to measure than the quality of your food at the supermarket and measuring the effectiveness of education may be better done by those with the resources to carry out long term studies.
2) While you directly observe the quality of your supermarket purchases, your observation of your child’s education is second-hand and therefore not as accurate.

Again, that does not imply that public schools are the appropriate answer. I never said that, nor do I believe it. But it does leave the door open for saying that supermarkets and schools should be handled differently and that the lessons learned from looking at one cannot be carbon copied onto the other.

Methinks1776 April 25, 2011 at 8:56 pm

I disagree.

First of all, a parent’s observation of the child’s education is no more second hand than the teacher’s. When I taught math to high school students, I had no idea what they understood and what they didn’t until I tested them or they sought me out for additional help.

While it’s true that some decisions are more difficult to make than others, leaving the choice in the hands of the consumer and allowing him to choose from the widest possible selection is never the wrong answer – whether the question is grocery stores or education. There is no other way of handling it – either the choice is made by consumers or it is imposed by an authority. Handling it “differently” is merely a euphemism for government restriction of consumer choice.

If you want to get really picky, it’s actually quite difficult to measure the long-term effects of food on your health. For instance, Okinawans are very long-lived – so long as they continue to consume their traditional diet. Turns out that they are genetically less capable of dealing with a standard Western diet and eating one creates worse outcomes in them than in those of European descent. Besides Okinawans, there are those who are predisposed to autoimmune diseases, heart disease and diabetes – all of which are affected by food. It takes a while for diet to take effect on health, so that which you perceive as high quality grub today could end up killing you in the future. Just as there are long term effects of education (which can be more unknowable to everyone than the effects of certain diets on subsets of the population), there are long term effects of food in grocery stores.

SheetWise April 25, 2011 at 10:37 pm

Government control implies that the consumer doesn’t have the sophistication needed to make these decisions — and that the collective knowledge of the experts is necessary to assure that not one single child is deprived their equal opportunity to … blah blah blah, and all that BS.

I can not imagine a consumer so unsophisticated as to choose public schools when given a choice — assuming the education of the child was their primary objective.

PrometheeFeu April 27, 2011 at 1:12 pm

“First of all, a parent’s observation of the child’s education is no more second hand than the teacher’s.”

I never said it was. I said they are more second hand than your own observation of your own food.

“Handling it “differently” is merely a euphemism for government restriction of consumer choice.”

There are various levels of restrictions which may or may not be appropriate. For instance, children’s toys have often contained amounts of lead which may cause problems to children playing with them. Eventually, consumers will realize this, start buying the lead-free toys, the companies producing lead-laden toys will sink and the market will have resolved the problem. However, in the meantime, much pain and suffering can occur. So while it may be a restriction on consumer choices, banning lead in children’s toys may be appropriate. Alternatively, there could be mandatory labeling to warn consumers about the presence of certain products.

In education, that could mean the government defining a certain standard and giving you vouchers only for schools that meet that standard. It could also mean defining a standard and forcing schools to disclose their position relative to the standard.

Not every government intervention has to be a complete take over.

Eric May 4, 2011 at 11:31 am

Quote:by those with the resources to carry out long term studies.

I will be spending the better part of 20 years living with my children(at a minimum) and will be part of their life until the day I die. I don’t see how anyone will have a better study of their development than me.

Douglass Holmes April 25, 2011 at 5:34 pm

I have complete faith that the grocery establishment in your imagined world would cite studies that show that market solutions do not work in providing good nutrition to the citizenry. Further, the leader of the grocer’s union would probably point out that in other countries, grocers “are honored and revered, not attacked.”
As for your reply to PromeeFeu, you are too kind, Dr. Boudreaux. There is plenty of evidence that parents will feed their kids junk food, if that’s what is available, and if it is priced right. Unfortunately, in your imagined world, the stuff we call junk food would be standard fare, and good food would be outrageously priced.
Thanks, Dr. B. You’ve done it again.

Homeschooling Mama April 25, 2011 at 5:35 pm

“I, as a public school teacher, DO NOT serve parents. I serve the adults children will become. I do serve parents, because that generally serves kids. In many (probably most) cases, the interests of the parents and the interests of the child align. But many parents do not know how to support school.”

I felt compelled to address this comment. It’s one among several reasons why my children will never darken the door of a school.

In using public schools, parents *delegate* the important task of education to teachers. Yes, indeed, teachers (and schools) should answer to parents. They are the customers; they have the highest stake, higher than any teachers’ (with their union-protected jobs), in seeing that their children succeed. Until both parents and teachers get it through their noggins the proper order of things, I have no hope at all for public education. The more educational experts usurp parental authority, the more parents are encouraged to abdicate it. Public schooling has devolved into a sort of rule by experts. Supposedly, only those certified by the state are expert enough to teach children, and parents are too “ignorant” to be included in that process. They should limit themselves to fundraising and other forms of boosterism. Question the status quo, assembly-line style of education? Just try it some time and see what happens when you complain to the school that your neither your current child nor the “potential adult” he will become is being “served.”

The great success of homeschooling in this country has put the lie to that notion. It is at the forefront of free-market education. Parents are clearly capable teachers of their own children and more than savvy enough to access all of the resources they need. Curriculum supply specialized for this tutorial method of education has grown tremendously to meet the needs of homeschoolers–to the point where they have too much from which to choose! (Ask any parent who attends a homeschool convention. :) )

Homeschooling parents form voluntary associations to provide instruction tailored for their individual children. They assume all the risk, responsibility, and cost of educating their own children (no tax breaks), and they, and their offspring, reap all the rewards–no certified busybodies may take any of the credit.

kyle8 April 25, 2011 at 6:36 pm

You are correct, and it is not just true for homeschooling. In my neighborhood, a couple of retired teachers started a neighborhood school with just a dozen or so students. It is a very low cost alternative. My state has special laws allowing such schools and they are great.

Ravi April 25, 2011 at 5:46 pm

Actually, the idea of a public supermarket is not that far fetched. Growing up in India, on numerous occasions, I was made to shop in these public supermarkets — they are called Ration shops over there.

1. The Ration shop is open only a few days( about 10 days) in a month and for about less than 8 hours a day.
2. The shop works on a complicated system that somewhat works like the public school here. Based on your address you have only one ration shop you can go to. You have a ration card that the store keeper enters the date and items you purchased. You are limited to only whatever is considered appropriate for the size of your.
3. You have to go pretty early and stand in line before the shop opens, else the stock will not last until your turn.
4. You actually stand in line for about 2 hours to buy 5 kgs of Sugar, or whatever it is available that day.
5. The store keeper can be extremely rude. He almost always cheats on the measurements and a decent amount will be shaved off. You have very little recourse.
6. The store keeper almost always sells the stock that’s allocated to the ration shop in the outside market at a profit for himself.

In sum, it sucked big time going to the public super market but one didn’t have much choice because you get things a little cheaper than the private super market but you have already been made to paid for the goods here. It’s absolutely delightful that the world’s leading free country uses this model for education.

An interesting irony is, pretty much everybody I grew up with in India went to for-profit private schools. They were cheap, had decent standards( magnitudes better than the public schools provided by the government) and really strived to educate children.

Homeschooling Mama April 25, 2011 at 6:01 pm

And in reply to Allison: a tutorial method of education provides immediate feedback in what is or is not working. No gap at all. A child either gets it, or he doesn’t, and if he doesn’t, the teacher must keep trying from different angles until he does. And when he does master a concept, you won’t need a standardized test to confirm the result. You won’t even need a letter grade.

Homeschooling Mama April 25, 2011 at 6:14 pm

And once children reach the age where they have “learned how to learn,” the tutor (be he parent or hired tutor) mostly serves as a back-up and an accountability structure. I am finally witnessing this phase myself, and can personally attest that, with a real education, it truly does happen. :)

Julien Couvreur April 25, 2011 at 8:59 pm

I would add that in the public groceries scenario, the food producers and distributors that are now employed by government (a near monopsony) will feel they have very little negotiation power. They will then organize into unions and ultimately take control of the political process for their own benefit and to the detriment of the rest of the people.

Debashish Ghosh April 25, 2011 at 9:09 pm

Don – Your analogy with supermarkets is a good one, and the K-12 education system in the US is certainly suffering badly because of the reasons you outlined.

However, in contrast, university education in the US is not suffering that badly because it does not impose as many restrictions on choice (viz. there are plenty of private universities (even if they cost more) in addition to the state funded/subdidised ones, students can choose any state univeristy and are not required to only attend the state school in their “university district”, and so on). I come from India where quite a few basic amenties are available to the people through a similar combination of public and private providers with very few restrictions on choice: grade school education, university education, healthcare. Anyone that can afford to avail the services of the private providers, generally does opt to purchase them, often even at significantly higher prices, because they are of higher quality. Nevertheless, what I am not sure of is whether that really proves that the government has absolutely no meaningful role whatsoever in making such basic amenities available to the people – it is by no means clear (at least to laymen like myself) that a completely free market system will succeed in making them available to close to the entire population at acceptable levels of quality. Even if it does, it may take many generations to get there, which would probably make such policies quite unpopular in the meanwhile.

Anyway, your strongly libertarian outlook (in general that is, perhaps not fully apparent in this post) begs the question: what are you advocating? That the US K-12 education system should be run on a model similar to that of the US university system (with less restrictions on choice)? Or should the government completely get out of playing any role at all in making K-12 education more accessible?

bill April 25, 2011 at 9:47 pm

You appear to have never been in many urban neighborhoods, where there is no supermarket and the only place to buy groceries is in a liquor store. Using your analogy in reverse, why would anyone build or operate a school in a area with high poverty? Because they certainly don’t open up grocery stores in those areas.

Methinks1776 April 25, 2011 at 9:57 pm

Ever been to a public school in the ghetto?

Don Boudreaux April 25, 2011 at 10:05 pm

Great question.

Regardless of how poor grocery stores in American ghettos are, I’ll bet big sums of $$$ that they serve their customers better than do government schools in those same locations.

Methinks1776 April 26, 2011 at 9:25 am

I remember the Pathmarks in the South Bronx and Lower East Side ghettos to be far superior to the schools I was briefly forced to attend there. As far as I can tell, they still are.

And just in case anyone thinks those ghetto mamas are indifferent to their children’s education, witness the overstuffed auditorium in Harlem during the lottery for the superior charter school. Women with barely a high school “edjumucasion” at the hands of the public school system are overcome with grief when their child doesn’t receive a coveted spot in the charter school.

George Morrison April 26, 2011 at 2:07 am

Today, I learned the pythagorium theorum, BEEP. The conjugation of eight Spanish verbs, BEEP. The role of the flat boat in settling the Ohio Valley, BEEP and how to dig in Volleyball, BEEP. Plus tax, that’ll be $26.75. Paper or plastic? (That’s the sound of a student paying for her education at the check out lane).

Arlen Perling April 26, 2011 at 8:50 am

Your idea reminds me of an alternative history premise. “What would the world be like today if the South had won the Civil War?” “How would President Gore have dealt with the WTC attacks?” “Welfare would work better if it were run more like the porn industry.” Wow, things sure would be different. Reality need not enter into your story as long as dogma is satisfied.

(Was the dogma good for you?)

carlsoane April 26, 2011 at 12:20 pm

What’s your point? Whatever is is best?

Donna Gordon April 26, 2011 at 10:16 am

Very interesting analogy – to take it further. We have 3 grocery stores close to my house. One has the best produce, selection and service. One has low prices and good quality, but limited selection. The third has the best meat dept, but less selection and longer checkout lines. So which store do I patronize? I have to prioritize which store I go to based on what I need to buy. So how do you work out transportation issues when kids could conceivably go to different schools? I have 2 with very different educational goals, one is the ‘intellectual’, loves school, the other an average student who is very engaged if he likes the subject and teacher and more inclined towards a vocational education track in engineering or mfg tech. So two schools, two parent teacher groups to get involved in, two sets of school calendars, rules and procedures to keep track of, and two places to retrieve them from after school activities? Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea of choice, but it’s when you deal with the practicalities of how you make that choice and what choices you offer that the whole thing gets complicated quickly.

Eric Hammer April 26, 2011 at 1:00 pm

Of course the problem is with public school you get one, whether you like it or not. (To use your super market case, you only are allowed to shop at the less expensive, lower variety store.) Both children go to the same school whether it is better for one, the other, both or neither.
Running between two schools might be quite troublesome, and if it is too much so more than the benefit, maybe you send your kids to the same school. Otherwise, you make it work some other way. The point is though that you will have the choice, and get to make the decision yourself instead of being forced to pay for one school that might be bad for both your children.

One possibility that springs to mind could be a centralized bus stop, where the buses for various member schools all stop at one place and parents can see that their kids get on the bus to their various schools and pick them up at the same place. I don’t know, but there certainly would be solutions created, much better than that one no doubt ;-)

Donna Gordon April 26, 2011 at 8:51 pm

You are right Eric, I’d complain about it, but I’d do it, (go to 2 schools) because the education of our kids is a high priority, mine can’t even have screen time if during the week if they have a ‘C’ which irks my son to no end but he knuckles down when he has to so he can go back to his beloved video games. And we are blessed to live in a district that is one of the best in the state, although I can still find things to bitch about, overall my kids will graduate well prepared for higher ed – my daughter recently went to China with a group of teachers and kids from her school, she has 11 hrs of college credit as a junior and my son will get college credit for a computer integrated manufacturing class he’s taking next year. But a neighboring (under-performing) district had a parent open house where they had courses in how to check your kids grades online, how to access online study materials, ways to encourage your kids to do better in school, tutoring resources, etc. TWENTY parents showed. They were hoping for 100. A friend went to a parent teacher conference (in a district so bad they recently closed half the schools due to suburban flight) to sub for her brother, a single dad, and her neice’s teacher said in a class of 23 kids, about 6-8 come to conferences. What I’m saying is, we need the parents engaged as well. No idea if choice would engage them, but what we are doing now is NOT working!

Dan April 26, 2011 at 11:53 am

One could argue that a public grocery store is even more critcial than a public education as food is a necessity of life where education merely enhances life.

MAOB April 29, 2011 at 2:05 pm

My thoughts exactly!

And when imagining schools run like the grocery store businesses, think about all the diverse available options when competition is introduced. From corner delis and farmer’s markets to Whole Foods and Fresh Direct. How’s that for innovation? Heck, schools can be mailing out weekly circulars with discounts on certain courses! Ha perhaps not totally parallel but when business is free to function, ideas and enhancements flow. Imagine all of the innovations in education that we have been missing out on! R&D for recess games? Sounds silly, yes? Of course in the context it would because we have grown so accustomed to treating education (and now healthcare) as an exception to the way systems naturally function. Opponents claim that parents/students and patients referred to as “customers” is inhumane. This perception has been conjured up as ammo to protect the policy for publicly provided services by those who directly benefit (govt officials, unions, etc). What’s so despicable about being a customer? Much rather that than known to be a beggar or looter.

But what about the businesses and companies the implement the very idea that their customers are not just consumers or strangers? It’s in a company’s best interest to form a relationship with their clients in order to best ensure future business. When customers are satisfied by the goods and services, they are likely to return. In order to increase those returns, businesses will improve their goods and services to attract more clients. The consumer benefits and therefore the company benefits. That’s why TD Bank provides lollypops for children and treats for dogs. That’s why Apple supplies bottled water for those extremists camped out to be the first iPad 2 owner. They see value in their customers and will work to maintain a mutual relationship. These aren’t cold transactions. And these aren’t greedy, manipulating banks and tech giants. Companies. Consumers. Markets. Economies. They are all made up of individuals. Individuals who are humans. Humans who have needs, desires, emotions, and FREE WILL. They should be making the decisions for themselves, whether as a single adult, a couple, a family, or a corporation. Not some growing group of elected officials who claim to know what’s best for the “greater good.” Do you agree that the gov’t can make a better decision than you can make for yourself? Or a better decision for your neighbor than your neighbor can make for himself? They have no knowledge of your shoe size, let alone having walked a mile in them. If that’s not presumptuous and arrogant and elitist, then what is?

We have become brainwashed by the reliance on the gov’t to control our decisions. If we can muster the courage and fully release our shameful cling to the Nanny, innovation, prosperity, and self-satisfaction is imminent and infinite.

Mark that this stems from a fundamental principle that when a society, a market, a nation is free to for individuals to make decisions based on their own interests, everyone ultimately benefits. This is a first principle that applies to all circumstances; there are no exceptions to the rule. Granted it is very difficult to train your mind into this frame of thinking since we’ve been born into this government dependent world (even though claims are still made – and will continue – that we are a free democracy). But don’t give up. Reject the conventional thinking of the lazy uninformed herd, the passive thinkers, the narrow sighted pundits, and the growing grip of the corrupt.. Free your mind to the truth and live it before it’s too late.

**Stepping off soapbox**

Brian April 26, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Interesting comparison, but there is a problem with this analogy: “County residents, depending upon their specific residential addresses, would be assigned to a particular supermarket.” This does not ring true because you are not assigned a post office, even though post offices are run by the state. You can go to any post office you want. It would be no different for state run supermarkets. Many of his conclusions fail because they hinge on this statement. However, other than this I agree state run supermarkets would be disaster. Just look at the shortages/quality problems in the USSR.

Don Boudreaux April 26, 2011 at 12:43 pm

The point is that residents are assigned to particular government schools.

Classicist April 26, 2011 at 9:43 pm

The Postal Service is federally funded, whereas schools are funded by local property taxes (and therefore exhibit wide disparity). The author is imagining a similar funding mechanism for grocery stores.

Jon April 26, 2011 at 2:22 pm

Thanks to my public school education, I don’t understand your analogy at all. Perhaps you could just state the facts of your opinion in a clear manner so as not to confuse the simple minded among us.

Pierre April 26, 2011 at 4:56 pm

Supporters of public education find it hard to conceive that schools can ever be completely privatized, citing a whole litany of objections which may at first seem reasonable. But Murray Rothbard addressed this point when he wrote about shoes (just replace shoes with whatever goods/service the gov’t currently provides. Sound familiar?). I quote:

Suppose we lived under a completely socialist government. All of our shoes are made by the government and distributed to the people by the government “Ministry of Shoes.” Suppose some radical libertarian proposed turning over the business of making shoes to a competitive, profit-based system. We might hear something like this:

How could you? You are opposed to the public – and to poor people – wearing shoes! And who would supply shoes to the public if the government got out of the business? Tell us that! Be constructive! It’s easy to be negative and smart-alecky about government; but tell us: who would supply shoes? Which people? How many shoe stores would be available in each city and town? How would the shoe firms be capitalized? How many brands would there be? What material would they use? What material lasts? What would be the pricing arrangements for shoes? Wouldn’t regulation of the shoe industry be needed to see to it that the product is sound? And who would supply the poor with shoes? Suppose a poor person didn’t have the money to buy a pair?

PrometheeFeu April 27, 2011 at 1:40 pm

I think it is true on some level that it is not enough to say that your outcome is better than the present outcome. However, you do need a path to get from one to the other for your solution to be credible. I would be interested in hearing what Don and others would propose as far as how to get from the current system to a privatized school system. (With vouchers to allow the poorest to also go to school I imagine) Goals would include minimizing the time it takes for the market to clear, (basically, the time during which some students are unable to attend a school because there are none they can afford in their area or the time during which you have a bunch of empty schools) and the time it would take for quality information to propagate.

My solution is two-fold:
1) Auction off the schools but offer the teachers an incentive to purchase. (Perhaps guaranteeing their loans) At this very moment, bad teachers are often known to be so by their peers. If schools were teacher-owned, I believe the bad teachers would be recognized and fired by their peers in the blink of an eye. Furthermore, that would make things more politically palatable and reduce the time it would take for schools to be operational: Teachers already know how to run a school. (More or less)
2) Keep a small number of schools under government control. Those could act as a stop-gap measure if for a reason or another private actors don’t take over fast enough in an area. Require that they at the very least break even and accept the vouchers as full payment. When an area has a mature market, sell them off.

Classicist April 26, 2011 at 9:21 pm

This allegory ignores the societal benefits of compulsory education as well as the simple fact that if education weren’t state-funded, people would simply skip it. The same cannot be said for food.

Dr. Goose April 27, 2011 at 12:35 am

A woman who loved a good fight
Would demand, as she argued all night,
Philosophical heft
From those on the left
And empirical proof from the right.

Lidia Seebeck April 27, 2011 at 1:13 pm

And, let us not forget the “home-grocer” movement, whereby some souls, considered backwards by many, endeavor to grow their own food. They *still* have to pay into the public grocery system, although many of them eschew its use based on the concept that 99.9% of the merchandise contains GMO ingredients. The home-grocers respond with ripe tomatoes and strawberries in hand, begging you that if you will only taste, you will know and you will follow. They hold glass jars of fresh-from-the-goat milk aloft and cry out that this is how milk is best. They hold out pitchers of fresh-squeezed orange juice and spoons of home-made raspberry jam. They claim, even, that hunger would be impossible, since they claim that most anyone can, with enough ingenuity and tutoring, learn to grow a good portion of their own food sustainably. They talk about composting and vermiculture, of living walls and aquaponics. The public-grocery advocates cry out about food safety and the unregulated nature of the operations, and keep trying to legislate home-groceries in various ways,

(I am a home-schooling mom and a home grower of as much food as I can)

priest's wife April 27, 2011 at 3:38 pm

great analogy!

…from a part-time college instructor and a full-time homeschooling mom to four

Etra April 27, 2011 at 5:30 pm

If you were to do with grocery stores what you are suggesting we do with schools, the analogy would carry on to include desperately poor families living miles away from the nearest store, forced to rely on cheap substitutes like fast food and 7-11, unable to afford to care for their most basic nutritional needs, gaining weight at an absurd rate whilst continuing to be undernourished. And they’d be too poor and busy trying to make ends meet to drive into the pretty suburbs to go get some fresh vegetables, even if they knew how/had time to cook them. Oh, wait. We do have that. Google “urban food desert”, and stop pretending you know anything about education just because you and the person you hooked up with are fertile.

O. April 28, 2011 at 12:58 pm

Arguing the aptness of the analogy for your particular agenda is pointless at best. It illustrates what you want it to illustrate just fine. Yes, public schools are far from perfect.

The problem is that that shouldn’t be the problem. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that vouchers are great for the kids who get to leave the public schools. It should be similarly inarguable that it puts the children left in the public schools at a disadvantage relative to where they would be with more kids in the system, and at a severe disadvantage to the kids who’ve left for better things.

The problem we should be interested in solving is how we create equality of educational opportunity (not necessarily of outcome) in a country whose claims to existence and prominence are partly about equal opportunity (I eagerly await the assertion that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are possible without equal opportunity). Education is a huge component of how we’ve done this for years. Saying “screw public schools, our children should get the education their parents can afford” may satisfy some people, but it fails at the basic American tradition.

A few other things:

“More fundamentally, even though it’s true that no parents will ever have perfect knowledge of how the schools are educating (or not) their children, what earthly reason is there to imagine that government bureaucrats and politicians will have better knowledge?” I went to public elementary schools that offered gifted and remedial programs, where teachers assessed kids’ abilities and with parental involvement, placed them appropriately. Of the many problems public schools have, one is definitely lack of resources to do this. My public school had the resources twenty-some years ago; what’s missing now?

“For the majority of the public parents are intimatly concerned with their childrens education.” This is not in any way true today. The majority? Go talk to a public school teacher.

Also, it should surprise no one that arguments that put “me and mine” so far above a general societal good (to the eventual detriment of both, IMHO) rankles some and resonates with others. We understand you don’t care about the other kids. You should. We do.

Bill Lever April 29, 2011 at 2:10 pm

Thanks, Don, the analogy is beautiful. Some understand it and some don’t… yet.

While preaching to the free market choir might be great, you must find winning converts a lot more satisfying.

It’s an honor to you that potential converts read your blog and engage in the debate.

Sex Mahoney May 1, 2011 at 12:05 pm

I live in a poor neighborhood with no major supermarket chains. We have mostly bodegas and a C-Town (look it up). Considering the number of children in this country who can read (99%) as opposed to the number who live in below the poverty line neighborhoods like mine (21%), where there are no major supermarket chains (but definitely schools); I’d say the government does a pretty damn good job of it. Next metaphor, please.

Glibgirl May 2, 2011 at 2:00 am

Time for a change in paradigm:

Our current model is on a suicidal course with a national average drop-out rate around 25%. The system is clearly not “offering” a valued product to 1/4 of its target market. Instead of bickering over whether it works for “this child, or that”, let’s step back and look at the historical basis for having a compulsory system, the benefits that could be had from a free-market system, and what we are afraid of in trying something new. If our fear stems from the fact that some parents will choose not to educate their children, can we truthfully say that that doesn’t happen already?

I love Thomas Jefferson’s words:

On compulsory schooling: “Is it a right or a duty in society to take care of their infant members in opposition to the will of the parent? How far does this right and duty extend? –to guard the life of the infant, his property, his instruction, his morals? The Roman father was supreme in all these: we draw a line, but where? –public sentiment does not seem to have traced it precisely… It is better to tolerate the rare instance of a parent refusing to let his child be educated, than to shock the common feelings and ideas by the forcible asportation and education of the infant against the will of the father… What is proposed… is to remove the objection of expense, by offering education gratis, and to strengthen parental excitement by the disfranchisement of his child while uneducated. Society has certainly a right to disavow him whom they offer, and are permitted to qualify for the duties of a citizen. If we do not force instruction, let us at least strengthen the motives to receive it when offered.”

Speaking to the possibility of government control over schools, instead of parents: “But if it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by the Governor and Council, the commissioners of the literary fund, or any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward, it is a belief against all experience. Try the principle one step further and amend the bill so as to commit to the Governor and Council the management of all our farms, our mills, and merchants’ stores.”

Children are innately curious and want to learn: “Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. This quality is the germ of all education in him. From his cradle to his grave he is learning to do what he sees others do.”

Tim DuBois May 10, 2011 at 7:16 pm

The flaw with this is that if we went with privately run schools, we would still need strict regulations and compulsory attendance and taxpayer funded vouchers. But you would end up with the same problems we have now. Good teachers would run to good schools to get more money. Good schools would raise their tuitions to be out of reach of “undesirable” students. Schools who were forced to rely on vouchers alone would settle for lower income/quality teachers and the cycle would continue as it does today. Actually worse, lower income people in “nice” towns who have good schools would be left out if tuition were raised beyond their income level. Vouchers that counted in ANY school would not be market driven and would defeat the whole capitalist values that the author is driving home. I do believe home school and private school families should receive school tax discounts, and public schools should be community (vs. state) driven. I also believe the tenure system is broken when schools are not allowed to reward excellence and weed out sloth and incompetence.

Billdave May 12, 2011 at 11:43 pm

The problem with the analogy is two fold- the first is that education is not a commodity, it is a set of skills and a part of ones essential personhood. the other is that food is for one’s personal use and benefit, education provides the general welfare, it improves our overall culture, provides equality and opportunity to citizens. Bad analogy= bad argument. Another issue here is that education is generally locally controlled, at the state, county and city levels, and having someone else’s ideology forcing vouchers or no vouchers, curricula or funding options on us is against most of our ideas about local control. And finally, of course experts with training and education in the field, with statistics and research at their fingertips almost always DO know better than parents. the idea that parents know best is a pretty widespread fallacy of parents. There is no IQ or general knowledge exam required to have sex and babies, as a matter of fact producing lots of babies seems to some of us to be counter-intelligent.

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