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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NonEntity April 24, 2011 at 6:24 pm

Dude! Seriously wonderful analogy. I have always believed that analogies are far superior to attempts at rational discourse. I think you’ve written something which may have far broader appeal than the normal rants we often find ourselves engaging in out of sheer frustration at the stupidity of the status quo.

Good on ya, as they say down south.

- NonE

Allison April 24, 2011 at 6:34 pm

Many people simply expect the entitlement, pure and simple. Since it’s “free” to them, it’s good enough.

But there are other issues at play that make the market argument less workable, and I’m a supporter of the market argument.

In the real world of grocery shopping, you can tell within a couple days whether or not the goods you bought were of good quality. Your peaches all go bad in 2 days? Your milk is sour? The meat smells bad? You have good information about whether or not to continue to shop at that store. You can easily compare the cost of your basket at one store to the other, matching brands and quality.

K-12 education has almost no short and medium-term mechanisms for parents to judge the quality of their child’s education, and no mechanisms for comparison at the child level. It is simply not possible in all but the most egregious cases to tell in a few weeks of your child’s schooling if the schooling is meeting your child’s needs.

For one, parents have no easy way to have relative measures of their child’s educational attainment–they have nothing to compare to, unlike the ease with which we can go to a new grocery store and compare prices, brands, quality of customer service. They can’t put their kid in one school for a week and then another. Second, almost no parents have objective measures of what their child should be attaining, so a week or a month or a few months isn’t enough for them to notice that anything is wrong. It’s not until YEARS have gone by, and “suddenly” the child is struggling with algebra 1, or struggling with middle school organizational issues, or struggling with reading a novel that you (slowly) discover that something is amiss. Objective measures of the quality of a grocery store are much easier to come by: percentage of the products you want vs another store; length of time of freshness of produce; etc.

Parents instead use a variety of proxies that are observable to them to judge education. The main ones are class size, age and condition of physical plant, pleasantness of teachers. These are poorly correlated with educational achievement, unfortunately, but they are about what parents have available to them.

Until there is much more transparency and much more ability to judge quality with available data, “the school market” will not be able to function as well as other consumer markets do.

Economiser April 24, 2011 at 8:12 pm

As Rick said below, there are plenty of other markets that function quite well with similar information problems. Cars, houses, boats, etc.

Also, other areas of the education market get around these information problems. Both pre-schools and colleges offer sample classes and tours, and schools and third-parties offer plenty of information. The argument that K-12 education is somehow different is a fallacy.

Hogan April 24, 2011 at 8:21 pm

Or you could read yelp reviews of schools/supermarkets. There would be a huge amount of detailed reviews on each store or school.

Justin P April 24, 2011 at 9:07 pm

Good point, the internet is a fountain of information that really makes Allison’s argument moot and just wrong.

Anon April 24, 2011 at 9:14 pm

Where does one get access to the internet? Where does one have the guaranteed chance to gain the skills needed to use the internet? Presupposing ubiquitous internet access is silly and just wrong, and makes your post moot.

Sean April 24, 2011 at 10:49 pm

Where does one get access to a newspaper, tv, or consumer reports? The internet is just one potential medium. What are you arguing no choice is better than more choice?

Skills needed to use the internet? You’re joking right. If my ADD grandpa can use the internet anyone can.

Tim April 25, 2011 at 12:29 am

Yes, there of course were no reputation effects prior to the internet. A school does not want a reputation for graduates that can’t read, and it’s not that difficult to know which schools are good and bad in your own area.

No one claims that the market is perfect, perfect competition is a hypothetical analytical tool that is often used as a straw man by proponents of government intervention.

The benefit of the market system is that when it makes a mistake, those mistakes tend to be corrected; whereas with government voter apathy/ignorance and special interest politics can hold everyone captive to poor decisions.

That’s what I never get about progressives, they say people are too dumb to make x decision for themselves; but somehow they are smart enough to vote for the people who will make the same decision for everyone.

Even if dumb people don’t vote, or if stupidity is evenly distributed on both sides of the issue, the implication of course being that only the experts will decide; the self interest of the experts can often conflict with those of society at large. Thus to actually believe in rule by experts we have to believe that somehow allegedly stupid people can select those experts and that, departing from all reason, those experts aren’t just as self interested as everyone else.

Ron H. April 25, 2011 at 4:00 am


In the late 1980s or even early 1990s your question might have been legitimate, but not any longer. Substitute the word TELEPHONE for INTERNET in your comment and see how silly it sounds.

By the way, there are no guaranteed chances to learn skills of any kind. Grow up. Take responsibility for yourself.

hogan April 25, 2011 at 12:23 pm

The library?
Ask the librarian for help?

How does anyone gain the skills to do anything? Are you insinuating that since there are no guarantees in life to anything the government must then provide everything?

Hogan April 24, 2011 at 8:37 pm

And if selection of k-12 is so difficult and takes so much time then how do the millions of parents of private school children manage to make a decision? How do college students manage to make a decision? They take the information available to them (itself subject to it’s own market; Princeton review, etc.) and life goes on. Make a bad decision? Transfer. Happens all the time from pre school to phd.

Allison April 24, 2011 at 11:05 pm

Like public schools parents, private school ones make decisions based on things other than academic success. Largely, their proxy is “the right peer group”, for whatever defn of “right” matters to their values. Start looking at the median SAT scores at private schools and you’ll see how few are excellent academically. College students make terrible decisions all the time, but again, what they value is not the same thing: most value a credential, a social life–not academic excellence.

Sample classes and tours offer almost no information on whether or not your child will be taught to read in first grade, whether they will successfully learn long division in 4th, whether they will be taught grammar well enough to construct a complex sentence in 7th. They may provide a snapshot of classroom management and philosophy, but few people have any idea what that translates into in terms of academic success.

Tim April 25, 2011 at 12:37 am

How does government solve this information problem? People go to state schools just to get credentials and party too, or are the state schools just run by the wrong government experts? What is it that the public school system does to address this problem?

The biggest party schools and credential mills are the less prestigious state schools, not private colleges.

Credential seeking isn’t irrational though, because it has become necessary to get a job in part because public education has consistently emphasized graduation rates and numbers of people with college degrees over what is actually learned.

Jake S. April 25, 2011 at 9:39 am

“Credential seeking isn’t irrational though”

Excellent point. In economics, we call it ‘signaling’.

hogan April 25, 2011 at 12:27 pm

I still fail to see how the government would address your concerns more effectively than a private market.

Except in your model if a child isn’t being taught how to read properly the parents would have to move in order to address the problem??

Allison April 25, 2011 at 5:59 pm


Are you incapable of distinguishing criticism of an analogy with “supporting” the other side?

I’m tired of these armies of straw man.

My point was not that we should have public education. It was that the analogy is poor, and suggests that if we could just magically have more charters or vouchers we’d get better education. But over and over we’ve seen something else: charters aren’t necessarily an improvement, and neither are vouchers. That’s what the data actually shows. So “the market” isn’t going to suddenly produce excellence, and we shouldn’t pretend it will.

Why not?Largely, K-12 education is still incredibly difficult to fix given the ideas present in the culture about what counts as a good education. Worse, the idea that “we can teach everyone a year’s worth of material in a year’s time” is really not present. There are all sorts of excuses about why and how poverty or ignorance at home prevent schools from doing their job. None of this even addresses the details of what’s wrong with constructivism. Those ideas are still going to have to be fought for education to improve.

yet another Dave April 25, 2011 at 6:32 pm

I don’t see how the analogy suggested anything magical or sudden. The analogy indicates that market forces have led, over time, to very high quality, availability and affordability in groceries (as in every other area where free markets have prevailed), so why oppose them for education?

Nobody has suggested schools would suddenly and magically be wonderful. That said, I see no reason to doubt that some improvements would happen rather quickly, especially for those trapped in the worst schools.

Charters and vouchers operate within the state monoploy on education, NOT a free market in education, so that example is not really applicable to what a market would produce.

You seem to ignore the fact that markets evolve over time and allow much more experimentation than government solutions. It is this experimentation that reveals what works better (just like in the market for groceries).

vidyohs April 24, 2011 at 8:42 pm

I don’t understand this thing about choice. The government puts the product on the shelf and you can choose to use it or do without. Choice, everyone has it. What’s the problem?

anthonyl April 25, 2011 at 12:15 pm

Your a funny joker!

vidyohs April 25, 2011 at 8:40 pm

No No No Tony, Please.

What about a “funny joker” do I possess?

I think you meant “you’re a funny joker”, am I right?

Notice that the word your indicates possession, and the word you’re is a conjunction of the words you and are.

Don’t bother to thank me, I’m just glad to help out.

Methinks1776 April 24, 2011 at 9:06 pm


Do you know any parents? I don’t know a single parent who doesn’t know what their child should have achieved by a certain age. This isn’t because the parents rely on the school to tell them. They seek out that information because their kids’ future is important to them.

You’d think that this would be true only of my uber educated super successful friends, but it’s not. I also know people who were forced by circumstances to drop out of school as teenagers who know exactly how their kids are doing and are able to judge how good or how poor a school is – even if they have no choice but to accept where the government has stuck their kid.

Allison April 24, 2011 at 11:10 pm

So, tell me: at what age should the child be able to decode a picture book? Read a chapter book? Summarize the plot of a chapter book? At what age should they have competent printing? Does guided reading work? How about synthetic phonics? How many sight words should they know? What about cursive? At what age should they know place value? Should they be taught “standard” subtraction algorithms? The lattice method for multiplication? Why is a fraction multiplication defined the way it is? Why do we invert and multiply? At what age should a student be able to list 7 elements in the periodic table? Should they be required to list all of the first 89? What about grammar–should it be taught formally? When? To what grade?

hayseed April 25, 2011 at 12:03 am

Take a child of any age that is in a public school and start tutoring them. Within a year you will see a vast improvement. If you continue to tutor you will see a gulf develop between this child’s achievement and the level that he was at previously. You will then have a better idea of what a child can learn. You will also understand that public schools will barely tap his potential. It is not rocket science. Public education is a joke.

Allison April 25, 2011 at 12:31 am

Hayseed, do you think I have defended public schools? If so, can you point to anything I’ve said that is a defense? I can’t tell from your reply why you said what you did to me.

Btw, do you think most parents” have a better idea how much their children can learn”? If yes, why do they leave their children in public schools? if no, then how will make better educational choices?

I think the middle class entitlement to “free” education for k-12 is wrong. Getting rid of it would be beneficial for all sorts of social and economic reasons, too many to list here. The middle class should pay for education for the same reason they pay for food and housing for themselves. But I don’t think that it means parents would suddenly have better school choices available to them, nor would it mean they would suddenly recognize which schools are better than others.

Tim April 25, 2011 at 12:51 am

@ Allison
Parents with kids in the worst schools would have a better choice, and could easily recognize it. What you say might be true of nice schools in the suburbs, and maybe some small town and rural schools as well; but other schools just suck.

In a sense much of the middle class and the wealthy already have some imperfect form of school choice, as people will often decide to live somewhere with a good school district.

vidyohs April 25, 2011 at 6:15 am

Other than my satirical comment above about choice, I was going to stay on the sidelines of this one; but this comment makes that impossible.

There is no one size fits all answer to your questions. Each child is an individual and is capable of advancing or learning on his/her own individual time scale or accomplishment scale. The answers to your questions could be very meaningful or totally meaningless when each child is examined individually.

As for any parent finding out the truths about any particular public school, it is not only difficult, I would say that every thing in policy is geared towards deliberate hiding or suppressing that information so no one can find the truth.

Methinks1776 April 25, 2011 at 8:14 am

I don’t know, Allison. I don’t need to know – I don’t have children. However, all the parents I’ve ever run across have made it a priority to find out, and that’s the point.

Heather April 25, 2011 at 2:15 pm

Exactly. I have a 2 1/2 year-old and one that will be 4 in a couple of weeks. I could go down Allison’s list and answer much of it off the top of my head–and the rest with a little research. There is even a series of books, by E. D. Hirsch written on the subject–one book for each of the elementary grades, with lessons so that parents can fill in where the schools are slacking. I own them, but all my books are in storage right now, because we’ve moved recently. I bought them to use as a guide for homeschooling, just to make sure we stay “on track”.
I’m not terribly worried about doing so, though. My 4 year-old is just about ready to read chapter books–and figured out decoding a picture book shortly after her 3rd birthday. Her brother probably won’t be far behind her–and we have NOT done any particular teaching, beyond normal good parenting.
Most middle class families DO know the quality of their kids’ schools. That’s why middle class people move to the suburbs–better public schools. And the public school education, if one is available that suits your quality specs, is cheaper than having to pay twice to send your kids to private schools. The having to pay twice is a big reason why the sector of middle class families that are homeschooling _because_ they are dissatisfied with the quality of government schools–these are families that can’t afford to pay school taxes AND tuition, and are sufficiently dissatisfied with their local schools to take action.
We’ll be homeschooling, for these and other reasons (none of them religious, btw).

hogan April 25, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Here you go Allison – and I don’t have kids or a masters in education!

So, tell me: at what age should the child be able to decode a picture book? TWO AND HALF Read a chapter book? SEVEN Summarize the plot of a chapter book? EIGHT At what age should they have competent printing? NINE Does guided reading work? SURE How about synthetic phonics? NO WAY How many sight words should they know? TWENTY What about cursive? SKIP IT At what age should they know place value? THIRD GRADE Should they be taught “standard” subtraction algorithms? YOU BET The lattice method for multiplication? LOVEI T Why is a fraction multiplication defined the way it is? YOU TELL ME Why do we invert and multiply? CAUSE IT’S FUN At what age should a student be able to list 7 elements in the periodic table? SEVENTH GRADE Should they be required to list all of the first 89? NOPE What about grammar–should it be taught formally? YES When? SIXTH GRADE To what grade?

Not hard. And if I messed one up LIFE GOES ON. Make as informed a decision as you can and move on.

Allison April 25, 2011 at 6:01 pm

Life goes on, and 40% of the students in your preferred model won’t be able to read and 70% won’t be able to do arithmetic.

Dan April 25, 2011 at 1:44 am

I have experience on this matter, as I toured multiple schools at the end of 2009-2010 school year to find a system more suitable for my child. The parent is 100% on their own. No school pricniple can offer advice or or discuss any experiences to compare with. There is no information available to make a more educated decision. We visited multiple districts within range of our home and multiple schools including traditional, charter, academy, and Montessori. With 2 children to place, we needed what was best for both. We preferred an academy for one who is disciplined and able to advance rapidly and then the Montessori for the other. But, we had to choose one…….or so we thought. One school had both Montessori and traditional on campus. Still, we are unable to place each child in the most fitting system. The best scenario would have been a private academy which would have specialized the learning for each student. Now, only one is getting the personal best scenario. The parent is on their own with very limited info available.

Dan April 25, 2011 at 1:50 am

We were looking to change schools due to what we believed was the one size fits all experience where they were was not meeting our expectations and wants for our kids. One child not allowed to advance and another not finding success in his grade level due to systemic reasons.

Seth April 25, 2011 at 9:59 am

Parents I know talk about things like class sizes, but in their true decision they don’t give much weight to that stuff. They rely more on word-of-mouth reputation, meeting teachers face-to-face and judging how much their child appears to be learning.

Floccina April 25, 2011 at 10:47 am

K-12 education has almost no short and medium-term mechanisms for parents to judge the quality of their child’s education

I strongly disagree. In fact, unlike buying a car we can buy education bit by bit. Further the evidence is that beyond teach children basic reading, writing and arithmetic, which are easy to evaluate, school is just a long test. Perhaps this is why we tolerate Government schooling, we accept Government as a unbiased tester of quality and better schools have shown little differences in long term output abilities of students. IMO it may be because the education component on schooling is small and unimportant that we trust it to Government. Never the less I would like to see it privatized.

Floccina April 25, 2011 at 10:50 am

Also you could just have Government rate schools, a much smaller role.

Mad-j April 25, 2011 at 1:53 pm


Yes, a parent can (and many have) “school shopped”. I personally know of dozens of families that enroll they children in multiple schools each year and then pick which one they feel best suits them. Some even have children in different schools based on their childrens’ individual (or percieved) needs. This is especially true in private and/or religious schools.

Where I live, we are blessed with 6 Lutheran and 2 large Catholic elementary schools. All experience these “shopping” methods annually. I have sat on my Lutheran school’s Board of Education several different times and have seen the budgeting woes this causes, but we always pressed on.

Tim April 24, 2011 at 6:52 pm

When I was reading Sowell’s Basic Economics (I believe it was this book) he related how Yeltsin once visited a Houston grocery store and had his faith in soviet central planning shattered. It’s just unfortunate we don’t really have the liberty in this country to try something contrary to the status quo imposed by government monopolies so as to demonstrate that our alternatives actually work. If a state, or even a county, tried to privatize all its schools, for instance, is there any doubt the federal government wouldn’t sue the state/county/city for violating the “right” to education?

SaulOhio April 24, 2011 at 6:55 pm

But, but but but, education is DIFFERENT!

Hogan April 24, 2011 at 8:31 pm

Lulz :)

Tim April 25, 2011 at 9:42 am

Won’t somebody think of the children!?! ;-)

andy April 25, 2011 at 1:10 pm

Education is different, in that it’s a public good as opposed to a private good. We all benefit from making sure that everyone gets educated.
I don’t much care what my groceries my neighbor eats but I do have a strong interest in seeing my neighbor educated. This is so they might get a job, contribute to the GDP, pay taxes and not rob my house…
I’m not saying the education system couldn’t use some reform, but the analogy doesn’t really hold.

Sam Grove April 25, 2011 at 1:23 pm

Education is different, in that it’s a public good as opposed to a private good.

It’s a public good only because government is providing much of it.
Food production is even more critical to society than education, it could be held as a public good, but history informs us that political control of food production is not such a good idea.

There’s no reason to assume that education must be a public good, lots of people are now getting their education outside of the government system because it does not serve the educational needs of their children.

Rick Weber April 24, 2011 at 6:58 pm

@Allison, I think you bring up a good point, but other markets overcome these information problems. I certainly am not qualified to rigorously evaluate many things I’ve bought in the past or hope to buy in the future: cameras, computers, cars, etc. Yet despite this, I can generally find pretty good information.

I also think we’re selling ourselves short by believing that the only viable structure for an education is 8 months of scheduled classes and four months off. I am highly doubtful that a free market in education would work like that in much the same way that moving from gov’t to private grocery provision resulted in a shift from standing in designated lines to going to whatever grocery store (or stores) you want when you want to.

I would expect a purely free market in education to be far more decentralized. David Friedman once offered a proposal for a better system for organizing colleges, where students went directly to professors, and some kind of degree agencies accepted (or refused) grades from different professors. There could also be independent testing agencies, etc. Who knows what might happen?! What I do feel confident in saying that whatever happens would generally be pretty different than what we’ve got now.

Ken April 24, 2011 at 8:00 pm


You can “Reply” to Allison, instead of leaving a comment a few comments away. There is a “Reply” like, letting replies go three or four levels deep at the bottom of each comment.


WhiskeyJim April 24, 2011 at 10:01 pm

This is a largely unexplored area.

I expect a free market in education would quickly evolve to provide any number of apprentice type opportunities since we already know learning is highly contextual, specialties have languages (economics is a good example), we remember better by doing, and the almost immediate need to earn our way.

There are already examples of colleges like this. I know of one where 35-40% of their students already have a college degree:) Their graduation placement is about 98% and they offer a full spectrum of disciplines in 2-4 year degrees.

Allison April 24, 2011 at 11:23 pm


The way you phrased your reply it’s unclear if you were speaking generally to the “the current system is a problem”, or if you thought I was defending it. I didn’t, nor do I.

I think “pretty good information” about a camera is a vastly different statement than “pretty good information about K-12″. Cameras have a standard set of features that can be compared; different schools for the same grade do not. Cameras generally have one purpose; different schools for the same grade do not. Amazon reviews for a camera don’t typically require you to know the value system of the the user in order to evaluate the strength of the review, but for schools, you absolutely need to know the value system of an adult who purports to support a specific educational philosophy.

Particularly for K-8, there aren’t equivalents of Consumer Reports ratings or even Amazon’s stars. State tests have low ceilings on performance; objective measures like whether a child made a year’s progress in a year’s time aren’t available to parents. Car companies’ reliability measures tend to be stable over time for a given brand of car, but schools don’t have the equivalent quality or systems engineering approaches to have the same stability. For high school, there are some more measures, but the confounding variables are at issue: is that school performing better on AP tests because of outside tutoring, or academic quality, say? Good data *could* be available, but isn’t, and is likely decades away in an industry that has not embraced standards or evaluation.

Cars and houses may have similar time lags in knowing their value, but the remedy is still immediate: if your car is a lemon, you may not have known at the time of purchase, but other than your sunk costs on financial losses, buying another immediately fixes your problem. Once you’ve sent your child to a school that you didn’t know was a lemon for a couple years, buying another doesn’t fix your problem, because the amount of remediation your child needs continues to affect them for years to come. Finding a way to remediate your child is another problem again, and not solved by putting them in another school.

Chucklehead April 25, 2011 at 1:53 am

Why wouldn’t there be schools that specialize in remediation? Why not schools that specialize in the way a individual child my learn?
Good information for choosing schools does not exist because there is no choice and no market. Look at the opportunity there is for a start up in this area once there is a need for the information.

Sam Grove April 25, 2011 at 1:25 pm

Point of fact, real estate sales often include the reputation of the school district as a selling point, and parents do, whenever they can, choose a residence within a school district that has a good reputation.

Heather April 25, 2011 at 2:22 pm

Actually, there are. You can get a copy of each school’s “Scope and Sequence” for the grade levels you are interested in. This lays out their objectives for each grade level for each year–what they will expect children in each grade to learn. They may even be written by the individual teachers and be slightly different for each class (probably not much, because the teachers must also follow district and/or state guidelines–and the district and state scope and sequence documents will also be publicly available.)

Economiser April 25, 2011 at 4:51 pm

Did you consider that good data isn’t available because there’s no competition for K-12 schools? Data doesn’t appear on its own. Without choice, and the information demand that sparks, there’s no incentive for anyone to prepare this data.

Wayne April 24, 2011 at 7:00 pm

I agree with Allison that the monitoring mechanisms are lacking in current system. But, I don’t think that’s inherent to educational services. I point you to khanacademy, which is showing that educational services can be just as sensitive to an ever dynamic social-economic landscape as grocery services.

Daylan April 24, 2011 at 7:13 pm

Allison beat me to it, but let me add that this (unable to determine long-term consequences) is the exact reason why government can get away with messing up the children and wouldn’t dare attempt anything wherein the immediate consequences could be traced directly back to the politicians.

WhiskeyJim April 24, 2011 at 10:03 pm

here, here.

Has anyone mentioned they miss the feedback mechanisms of Disqus?

John Sullivan April 24, 2011 at 7:35 pm

Once a central government is powerful enough, education is the first thing they take over in order to control the beliefs of the masses. The status quo pertaining to the relative distribution of power, or privledge, needs to be conditioned into the minds of the youth, that it represents justice. Once something is believed, it is obeyed. Plato emphasized this in his totalitarian masterpiece “The Republic”.

WhiskeyJim April 24, 2011 at 10:06 pm

Is it a coincidence that an immediate defense against Plato’s centralized schemes came from his student Aristotle?

vikingvista April 26, 2011 at 2:20 am

Aristotle-Plato: Your basic smart student twisted professor relationship. Same thing today, except usually today, the smart student contemptuously parrots all the nonsense his professor wants to hear, so that he can proceed to get the marketable “A” that the student has come to realize isn’t really worth muirde as a mark of useful understanding.

Kevin Jackson April 24, 2011 at 7:41 pm

But worst would be when someone complains that the presence of chocolate eggs in the weekly allotment this time of year is a violation of the separation of church and state, and so all “holiday eggs” are pulled from the stores.

tdp April 24, 2011 at 7:53 pm

Well, Fairfax County, VA has some of the best public schools in the country. Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a public magnet school in Fairfax where the average SAT score is 2150 out of 2400, is the best public high school in the U.S. Clearly, the schools that are performing well should be left alone, and the school districts that are struggling should be free to try school choice programs. What about giving local school districts flexibility to decide on choice vs. traditional, or better yet letting voters pick. Don’t fall into the liberal trap of destroying a good thing in an attempt to fix a bad thing.

Economiser April 24, 2011 at 8:07 pm

Or better yet, allow full school choice for everyone. Thomas Jefferson will still fill its class easily, but students who don’t get in will have better options.

Craig April 24, 2011 at 8:40 pm

But, if Thomas Jefferson’s enrollment is now open to everyone, will it be stuffed full of well-to-do kids from the surrounding area? Will its “outcomes” suffer? Will it still be considered such a good school?

Ron H. April 26, 2011 at 4:07 am


To answer your own question, change the following in you comment:

“Thomas Jefferson enrollment” – to – “the new Safeway”
“kids” – to – “shoppers”
“school” – to – “store”

What do you think?

Tim April 24, 2011 at 8:29 pm

“best” defined how? You’re invoking SAT scores as one definition of a good school, but what makes an education producing a high SAT score objectively better than an education producing a low SAT score? Are people with high SAT scores guaranteed a higher standard of living than people with low ones?

Put simply, the principle of scarcity applies to education just like it applies to everything else. There are fewer hours in the day than are necessary for students to learn every fact in existence. Therefore certain things need to be taught and others cut. In free schooling, the decision of what to teach and what not to teach will be determined by market forces. Certain schools will use models which produce graduates who are economically useful, and others will use models which produce graduates who are economically useless. The consumer of education will notice that certain schools produce graduates who are paid higher because the market places a higher value on their skills, and will move his or her children into those schools. This funnels more money out of bad schools into good schools, feeding more economically useful models of education and crushing less useful ones.

Now, stealing from Mises’ writings on the problem of economic calculation in socialism: the education market will respond to price signals and provide that form of education which best satisfies the economy’s demand, whereas a government monopoly cannot do this because, without a market for education, there are no price signals to indicate what kinds of education are most useful. Central planners will produce edicts on how to educate and how to appraise the value of education based merely on their own personal opinions of what constitutes good education, because the necessary price signals required for economic calculation do not exist.

WhiskeyJim April 24, 2011 at 10:14 pm

I suggest years to graduation would quickly become a variable, and generalization would give way to specialty at a much earlier age.

nailheadtom April 24, 2011 at 8:35 pm

Why would I accept average SAT scores as the gold standard for high school excellence?

Tim April 24, 2011 at 8:35 pm


Given the central planners cannot make decisions on how to educate based on the prices which would arise in an education market, they cannot establish standards for what constitutes “good” and “bad” education either. Therefore, assessments of which schools are good and bad really only indicate which schools are better or worse at turning their students into the central planning board’s arbitrary and economically detached definition of what a good student is. It’s entirely possible for someone to ace his SAT and not have received a great deal of the training which he will actually need for the career he will end up in, while someone who bombs them terribly may receive all the education he actually needs, thus receiving far better education than the one with astronomical test scores.

WhiskeyJim April 24, 2011 at 10:17 pm

Tim, do not forget that elite schools also rely on networked connections in job placement for their perceived ‘effectiveness.’

You get a Harvard MBA because you will meet some of the richest connections in the world, not because the degree is much different than 50 other schools.

Sean April 24, 2011 at 10:56 pm

Do the ends justify the means? Stealing via taxes to pay for something that should be provided voluntarily is immoral. You’re assuming that changing this method of funding will change the performance of the school. How does one know that it wouldn’t get better?

Ron H. April 26, 2011 at 4:17 am

Giving the customers of education – parents and pupils – more choices, and allowing them to pay directly for the service they want, can’t help but improve the performance of schools.

As with healthcare, third party payment for education removes from those who use the service, any ability or incentive to control control prices.

Sonic Charmer April 24, 2011 at 8:06 pm

I’m less than thrilled by this analogy only because I think there probably are some ‘progressives’ who would wish to see grocery stores run by the government, or at least more government participation in the grocery-store arena than there (already) is, and I don’t want to give them any ideas.

It’s very typical to hear the complaint that people in the inner-city don’t have ‘access to’ grocery stores with fresh produce, for example, and that this is why they’re fat/unhealthy, which is a public health problem we should address, etc. This is often coupled, on the flip side, with thinly-veiled class warfare/envy rhetoric about the fancy grocery stores (complete with organic arugula, etc.) of the mostly-white upper class. And then there are all the ‘nudge’ ideas regarding how everyone’s diets should be shaped, influenced, and molded (no salt, less fat, less/no meat, etc.) that many ‘progressives’ would be all too happy for the chance to put into practice.

Surely such a crucial, fundamental health issue as food cannot be left to the free market alone, they will say…and essentially, already have been….

Methinks1776 April 24, 2011 at 8:57 pm

some ‘progressives’ who would wish to see grocery stores run by the government.

That’s a great way to find out what the shelves currently holding the groceries look like.

You no longer have to suspect. I know people in the public health department of a very high ranking university in Baltimore that would like to do exactly that. See, according to them, IQ is directly correlated to income. They estimate that the folks in the ghetto aren’t getting their fruits and vegetables because they don’t know what they are – not because burgers taste so much better. They just need a bureaucrat to straighten them out.

WhiskeyJim April 24, 2011 at 10:25 pm

You may remember only a few months ago, less than 2% of eggs on the market were found to potentially cause salmonella (you get sick for a few days) if they were not thoroughly cooked.

Besides the media uproar, the FDA used the ‘outbreak’ for a huge push to drastically increase its control of private producers.

If you can’t own it, control it.

Ron H. April 26, 2011 at 4:21 am


When you complain about progressives, you might want to avoid the use of collectivist sounding phrases like “we should address” in your comment .

Ron H. April 26, 2011 at 4:30 am


When you discuss the scarcity of grocery stores in inner city neighborhoods, keep in mind that there are two distinct economic forces that act to prevent stores from locating in these areas. One is the higher cost of doing business due to high crime, and the other is the low sales volume due to lower income levels of people in these neighborhoods

Methinks1776 April 24, 2011 at 8:43 pm

Eye dohnt no wut ur tawking about Muirdiot and eye iz a produkt uv thu publick skool cystem and wii iz doing justt fin So iz chineeze krap. Ewe wud dineye futre genuhrasions thuh edjuckasion their neid to sukceed, DOOOOOON!

brotio April 25, 2011 at 2:06 am


James E. Miller April 24, 2011 at 8:49 pm

Fantastic post Don. Not only did you provide the perfect analogy for rationalizing market control over education, but you did it in a way that addresses many of the issues proponents of public education may bring up. Allison brought up a good point, but I see no reason why the market would be unable to address such “information problems.”

CRC April 24, 2011 at 9:21 pm

This is a fantastic analogy and one I’ve tried to use myself. But there’s something else here that’s often glossed over in this discussion…and it makes the argument even stronger for privatization.

I believe that people don’t really want GROCERY STORES…they want food. Grocery stores are simply one way that food is offered. And what’s more, with food, they want it in a variety of shapes, forms and styles. If this analogy were expanded to look at the unbelievable variety of ways that FOOD products and services are offered to the public, the amazing variety of styles, forms, prices, qualities, etc. The supermarket is only one component of it. This amazing variety shows us clearly how a relatively unregulated and relatively private market delivers and caters for almost every single need, budget, taste and desire.

Similarly people don’t necessarily want SCHOOLS…they want knowledge and education. Sticking kids into a cinder block room in rows and columns of chairs facing forward to have someone talk at that is only one way for an education to be delivered (and a dubious one at that.)

We are missing out on so much. I want to weep for the variety we’re undoubtedly missing out on in educational products and services because of the current “market” structure for education.

Economiser April 24, 2011 at 10:16 pm

Great point. I’d take it one step further: most people want to be marketable. The knowledge they gain through schooling is often secondary to that aim.

Chucklehead April 25, 2011 at 2:14 am

Most people want jobs, the higher paying the better.
Most people want to be paid, the more the better.
People want to be paid, so they can use the money to do what they like.
Most people want to do what they like.

Krishnan April 24, 2011 at 9:40 pm

This analogy is positively dangerous … There are many who do believe that since every one has a”right” to food, shelter, clothing, education, jobs, TV, cell phone etc etc – GOVERNMENT SHOULD TAKE OVER all aspects of food production and distribution and all that … As that great economist Krugman noted, there are some things that we should not look as consumer items … but as something WE MUST provide …

So, some reading this will say “Wonderful Idea – Let’s nationalize food production and distribution”

There is no limit to people’s insanities and their desire to destroy.

John V April 24, 2011 at 10:16 pm

I use this style of analogy when telling all my family members who are teachers why I think education should be completely decentralized and that, at most, a needs-based voucher should be attached to an otherwise free and open system with a minimal skeleton of rules that would most likely be unnecessary in practice since they would amount to something like telling Italian restaurants that they need to offer pasta dishes.

I point out that nobody fears or wonders about how most products are available to them and that they would never be able to imagine the private production and distribution of anything without using what they already take for granted as a crutch in “inventing” something.

I tell them that, at a most basic analogical level, we would have Walmart Schools, Target schools, Whole Foods schools and Saks Fifth Ave. Schools and every imaginable school in between….and we would see this in small towns where everyone currently goes to one school district with one High School. And it would all be OK and every student would get a better education than they get and that, yes, wealthier students would get a more high quality education and that the education gap would increase while everyone would get a better education in absolute terms.

LB April 24, 2011 at 10:17 pm

The gaping hole in this metaphor is this: everybody eats. Given our privite grocery system everybody has the right to “opt out” of the system, but of course very few chose to do so. A privizited education system would present a different picture. The majority of tax paying citizens would pay nothing into the system, as the majority of citizens aren’t parents with school-age dependents. For those who are, the costs of providing their kids with an education would be dramiticaly higher due to the smaller base of people paying into the system. Look at the cost of education at the collegent level today and imagine extending that back through grade and high school. Suddenly one can imagine a world in which 40 year olds are left still struggling to pay off their 3rd grade education.

LStirling April 25, 2011 at 8:35 am

This article popped up in my recommended items, and I clicked through, because I was staggered at the simplistic nature of the analogy, and the vehemence with which is was defended. I was then flabbergasted to see so many comments one after another that lapped it up uncritically. LB, it’s refreshing to see that before I leave this corner of the internet never to return, that I got to read at least one person who looked deeper than just the superficial analogy. At face value, I would be a winner using the “supermarket model” as I don’t have children and never plan to, but I’m sure glad that I don’t live somewhere where it’s employed. The ramifications are terrifying.

Sam Grove April 25, 2011 at 1:29 pm

Goodbye terrified.

Too bad we won’t see any substantive argument from you.

carlsoane April 25, 2011 at 9:44 am

The problem with your college analogy is that it assumes that colleges exist in a free market. College education is highly subsidized with grants and below market rate loans.

Heather April 25, 2011 at 2:33 pm

Not so much. The average private school tuition is about the same as the average parent pays per week for day care for their younger kids. And, of course, there is always homeschooling. I live in an area with a vibrant homeschooling community. For those parents who don’t want to teach everything, classes are available for everything from Spanish to boatbuilding to blacksmithing to circus stunts, to very literally you-name-it. And the prices are almost always quite reasonable, with the teachers being people with a decent amount of expertise in their subject matter (NOT a given with public school teachers)
Anything done by the government always uses money inefficiently. This being the case, you have to compare per pupil cost with actual private school tuitions, NOT with public school per-pupil expenditures–much of which is wasted on such things as very top-heavy administrative structures.

carlsoane April 25, 2011 at 2:58 pm

You have by the way just undermined one of the Progressive’s main justifications for government run health care: its universality. Here you seem to be making the argument that everyone needs food, therefore, the government does not need to provide it. Alternatively, you may be simply making the argument that the government should provide all expensive services.

WhiskeyJim April 25, 2011 at 4:28 pm

The problem with this attempted critique is of course that everyone learns. LB is so blinded with the status quo he can not envision the panorama of learning channels which would explode, along with their various cost models (most meant to decrease cost while increasing practical knowledge) that privatizing education would allow.

I challenge LB to consider this: the current education system is based on a generalized passive, one-size-fits-all learning model that requires 12+ years of one’s life just to get started. The cost of the system has exploded in the last 40 years (more than quadrupled) without altering outcomes.

Do you really believe such a scenario would be tolerated in competing markets? If you answer ‘no,’ then you must consider that your own statement above is erroneous.

Dan April 26, 2011 at 12:21 am

Secondary schooling costs have little to do with the market. Govt intervention and other agencies like accreditation agencies are more responsible for the high pricing on college and trade schools than the market place.

WhiskeyJim April 24, 2011 at 10:27 pm

Don, one of your best posts ever.

May I also say that by implication the post demonstrates the warts in a voucher system as well.

WhiskeyJim April 24, 2011 at 10:35 pm

Don, now write an even more detailed post comparing supermarkets to health care delivery:) Make it a 3 part post if you like; one comparing pricing mechanisms, supplier information obstructed by employer and government, and monopolized insurance companies as provider rather than catastrophic safety net!

Dave April 24, 2011 at 10:35 pm

I’d like to see Don’s full education proposal. I think simple school choice among existing public schools would run into huge logistical challenges (think bus routes), and total separation of schools and state would leave the poorest children unserved by the market (unless there were vouchers), or mostly reliant on charity. Not that I would defend the current state of education either…

WhiskeyJim April 24, 2011 at 10:57 pm

These are not large issues Dave. And the poorest children are already under-served. We give out food stamps don’t we? Why not education stamps? There are many ways to solve this.

Further, the landscape would look much different if education cost less than half of what it does now. And yes, I believe that could easily be true.

Heather April 25, 2011 at 2:36 pm

And the schools the poor go to now are serving them how? “Underserving”, in many of said schools would be an _improvement_. I have heard this argument used against charter schools, too. In an inner city area. “How do you know your kids will learn what they need to?” News flash: they’re NOT learning NOW. The charters can hardly be WORSE.

Dan April 26, 2011 at 12:38 am

Just how much responsibility does the school have? The expectations have been lowered and parents need to shoulder greater responsibility. There is little a school can do to negate the teachings at home that don’t promote a priority on the education of the youth. Also, college is not for all individuals and not a ‘must’ for all. A career in a trade may be in the cards for many.

spydermelon April 24, 2011 at 10:38 pm

Regarding property tax: what are some of the alternatives to funding public schools?

John V April 24, 2011 at 10:49 pm

Alternatives to property tax?

User fees
General state revenue
A new form of tax collected and distributed at the county or municipal level.

brotio April 25, 2011 at 2:09 am

John V gave some alternatives to a property tax. I’ll offer my opinion as to why a property tax is despicable: If it’s my property, why must I pay rent on it to keep it?

Methinks1776 April 25, 2011 at 9:50 am

Excellent question.

Methinks1776 April 25, 2011 at 9:51 am

The implication is that the property is owned by the state. The Czar owns the country and its inhabitants.

JohnK April 25, 2011 at 9:57 am

Property taxes can be used to force poor people from their homes so affluent people can take their place.

It’s a very effective way for a town to rid itself of the underclass, or at least turn them into renters.

Happens all the time.

Methinks1776 April 25, 2011 at 1:05 pm

Mere affluence is not enough. One must have political connections. That’s the key.

vikingvista April 26, 2011 at 2:30 am

Some self-proclaimed “classical liberals” believe that is the proper role of the state–to determine who owns what, and under what conditions.

WhiskeyJim April 25, 2011 at 4:32 pm

In Virginia, we have car property taxes as well. Horribly regressive of course, given our zoning laws force almost anyone who wants a decent job to buy a car since public transportation is a joke except in a few select cities.

Ron H. April 26, 2011 at 4:43 am

That IS a good question. I’ve had the same one about my income which is also my property.

vikingvista April 26, 2011 at 2:26 am

Why would you want to fund public schools? You hate kids? The best alternative is to NOT fund them. Privatize them. Let parents and young adults decide if, when, and what kind of education they want to buy, instead of being forced to overpay for education they don’t want.

Mark April 24, 2011 at 11:05 pm

this is simply genius

Chucklehead April 25, 2011 at 12:39 am


spydermelon April 24, 2011 at 11:30 pm

Thanks JohnV. I wonder how other countries provide funds for their public schools and how they pull off successful results — with a nod to tim and nailheadtom: — at least by the measures different agencies use. Several surveys, for example, list Finland as the best system in the world. Public system any way. And I read the all universities in Finland are publicly financed; students only pay for books and study materials. And I think Newsweek listed Finland as the best country to live in, 2010.

I understand this is a little off topic. Obviously the Finnish are not libertarian when it comes to education, and all the surveys in the world don’t prove a philosophical point.

But the reason I bring it up is I think the problem with public education is really two problems: funding and educating students. I think the overlap between the two is less easily fixed. If you look at the disparity in what is spent and what is achieved, money doesn’t seem to drive the success. Some schools have more money and do a better job while others spend less and achieve the same results.

It’s a complicated issue. Not in terms of free-market versus public; on that it seems we have here very clear cut positions.

John V April 24, 2011 at 11:48 pm

Finland is too small and un-diverse to be taken as a model worth looking at for relevancy in the US.

WhiskeyJim April 25, 2011 at 5:00 pm

Correct. Lack of diversity explains a lot but not all. But Finland’s birth rate is 1.04. They will be assimilating immigrants in the next generation at a rate never before successfully attempted by a culture in order to avoid economic bankruptcy from their social net. Currently they require all immigrants to learn the language.

As to education, they allow teacher autonomy, immigrants enter separate classrooms until they ‘catch up’ and their classroom discipline is the highest in Europe.

Emil April 25, 2011 at 8:05 am

“And I think Newsweek listed Finland as the best country to live in, 2010.”

Interesting, now please tell me why don’t we see droves of people moving to Finland? I can answer that: it’s a depressing, cold, crappy place

John V April 25, 2011 at 9:42 am

To me, looking at Finland is similar to looking at a wealthy county in the US and then trying to draw conclusions about policy for the rest of the country.

WhiskeyJim April 25, 2011 at 5:03 pm

This is correct. Why do economists compare countries the size of a city to the USA?

Actually, the implication for Progressives of most ‘stand-out’ European performance is that government should be pushed down to the local city level; decentralized.

spydermelon April 25, 2011 at 6:43 pm

I’m sorry if I’m off base here, but isn’t it true that only 10% of financing comes from DC for schools? And that curricula are set locally?

I understand Finland is smaller, but I thought in the spirit of accepting grocery stores as actually comparable to schools, there was a little wiggle room when it came to comparisons.

Okay, it’s more like a local/county system. Maybe that’s part of the solution. Are we looking to improve education or simply score one for free markets?

John V April 25, 2011 at 10:45 pm

Yes. I mean let’s be serious here:

If someone tried to take a demographically and economically strong area’s school district or high school(s) and then take their scores on SAT’s, science, math or standardized national tests and then compare to the entire NYC public school system’s average (or Philly or DC or whatever city), it would even pass the smell test for anyone and never, ever be taken as a fair or serious comparison.

YET, people are so quick and willing to do this on a national level when comparing the US to some small country like Finland, Norway or Denmark. The obvious and glaring flaws with the comparison when looking at districts within the country are no longer taken as seriously even though they are every bit as valid.

WhiskeyJim April 26, 2011 at 12:11 am


Let’s step back a moment. All European style economical systems are structurally bankrupt. So the question of whether their education systems ‘work’ is pretty much moot.

IF we ignore that issue for a moment, one problem that immediately arises is that they have comparatively homogeneous populations, a fact that is devolving as we speak, and grow even more challenging. But it greatly obscures the numbers.

Second, in Finland, immigrants are separated in different school systems for about 2 years until they ‘catch up.’ This is politically unacceptable in our version of government care.

Third, their classrooms are greatly more autonomous and much more disciplined that ours.

These are all significant differences. But if we want to establish a self-sustaining educational system, I struggle to understand how the government controlled one qualifies.

Greg Ransom April 25, 2011 at 12:17 am


Jen April 25, 2011 at 12:20 am

What if consumers were unable to make decisions about groceries, but had to rely on others to make the decisions about groceries for them?

That’s the situation in public schools. CHILDREN don’t pick schools, PARENTS, do. 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. And a few parents are unable or unwilling to serve the interests of the adults their children will become.

So, in your system, where parents choose schools, schools would serve only those children who were lucky enough to be born to parents who could figure out which schools to choose. And schools would serve children who were lucky enough to be born to parents who would support those schools (because any “choice school” who wants to improve their scores is going to quickly implement attendance, homework support, and even volunteering requirements to keep out challenging or struggling parents).

I’m not sure any of us would want to live in the communities filled with the “leftover” kids — those kids whose parents couldn’t, or wouldn’t, or didn’t know how to get themselves into a better system.

The best thing No Child Left Behind did, was say: you have to serve ALL kids, not just the ones whose parents are experts at “doing school”.

Jake S. April 25, 2011 at 10:03 am

You could turn this argument back to grocery stores (specifically, nutrition for children).

“CHILDREN don’t pick [the food they eat], PARENTS do.”

“But many parents [are not nutritionists]. And a few parents are unable or unwilling to [become nutritionists."

"So, in your system, where parents choose [the food their kids eat], [grocery stores] would serve only those children who were lucky enough to be born to parents who could figure out which [foods] to choose.”

“I’m not sure any of us would want to live in the communities filled with the… kids [who eat leftovers].”

Ron H. April 26, 2011 at 5:06 am

CHILDREN don’t pick schools, PARENTS, do.

Well, duh, of course parents do. Why do you suppose they’re called “children”? If they were fully adult and able to make their own choices, they would be called “adults”

the interests of the parents and the interests of the child align.
This is such an odd statement. It seems to me that children seldom have the same interests as their parents. That’s why they need parents.

But many parents do not know how to support school. And a few parents are unable or unwilling to serve the interests of the adults their children will become.

You may have this backwards. Do you believe that children belong to the school, or perhaps the state? Who is helping who here?

It is the school that is supporting the parents, not the other way around. I often have to remind teachers and administrators, when they thank me for my support, that most of my grandson’s education occurs outside of school, and I thank THEM for supporting ME.

Ron H. April 26, 2011 at 5:19 am

As for No Child Left Behind: Yes, let’s serve ALL kids, including those who can’t learn, won’t learn, have no interest in learning or being in school, those who are unruly and disruptive, in fact let’ serve those who pose a physical danger to other students and teachers.

It’s OK that a few make it impossible for others to learn because of their actions, and it’s OK that the pace of learning must be slowed to accommodate the slowest learners, but whatever we do, let’s not leave them behind.

Ivan Soto April 25, 2011 at 1:07 am

The accuracy and didactic value of this here analogy is hard to beat! ALL forms of educational provisioning for the young still need to observe coherent, meaningful standards of quality, lest too many young consumers fall victim to the whim of unsound experimentation or just wacko indoctrination.

spydermelon April 25, 2011 at 6:45 pm

I’m sorry, but there’s a little syllogistic sleight of hand that weakens this analogy.

It’s interesting. But hardly impenetrable.

Greg Ransom April 25, 2011 at 1:12 am

What about the sacred relationship between teacher and student.

Or the sacred relationship between the teachers union and the school board?

Sam Grove April 25, 2011 at 1:32 pm

Or the sacred relationship between teachers and their paychecks?

Ron H. April 26, 2011 at 5:23 am

Or the sacred relationship between teachers and their “right” to collective bargaining with someone who they have helped elect to office, and therefore owes them some payback?

Methinks1776 April 26, 2011 at 9:28 am

*like” to all three of you.

Gil April 25, 2011 at 1:35 am

I thought the primary reason against public education and standards is that the vast majority of schooling over a decade you get is mostly worthless and will be forgotten. I believe education should be based on the tertiary level of eduction – totally voluntary and if people don’t want to go to school and prefer the workplace then that’s their choice. After all, I’ve done the odd jobs where the only education needed is to fill in a time sheet.

brotio April 25, 2011 at 2:12 am

I disagree with you most of the time. Here’s one exception.

vikingvista April 26, 2011 at 2:32 am

“totally voluntary”

Same here.

dan April 25, 2011 at 2:17 am

Are you referring to a union job?

Troy Camplin April 25, 2011 at 1:37 am
WhiskeyJim April 25, 2011 at 7:00 am

Good article Troy.

Dave April 25, 2011 at 2:49 am

The other side of this analogy is that mental obesity and BSE of the mind would be on the rise. The notional free market is not a panacea, particularly when it is operated to benefit a minuscule subset of those subjected to it.

Sam Grove April 25, 2011 at 1:34 pm

The notional free market state is not a panacea, particularly when it is operated to benefit a minuscule subset of those subjected to it.

yet another Dave April 25, 2011 at 3:09 pm

The notional free market is not a panacea…

What does panacea have to do with anything? Are you saying if something’s not absolutely perfect it should be rejected???

If yes, then absolutely everything should be rejected. That doesn’t make any sense at all.

If no, then what is your point?

matt April 25, 2011 at 3:04 am

I suspect that only those who can afford to buy groceries would prefer privately-owned and run grocery stores over stores that give out essentials “free”, regardless of how dismal they are.

Wanderer April 25, 2011 at 7:17 am

Funny, all the time I was reading this I was thinking about the analogy that could be written along these lines on the subject of healthcare. Thanks for the great read!

John Breivogel April 25, 2011 at 7:52 am

While it is the government’s legitimate and constitutional responsibility to defend us against foreign enemies, it does not necessarily follow that the government needs monopoly control over the aircraft, tank and small arms factories.

The Whited Sepulchre April 25, 2011 at 8:31 am

I appreciate your willingness to do combat here.
One thing….we do have enough info to realize that the current public school system totally blows, right?
What else do we need to know before we simply give people a freakin’ choice?

Accidental Reader April 25, 2011 at 8:45 am

Dude – Apples are not oranges and food is not education – a fact you may have missed in your K-12 education. Spurious comparison.

Captain Profit April 25, 2011 at 11:33 am

The phrase “bad analogy” is the tell-tale sign of those who can’t formulate a logical argument to refute the point illustrated by an analogy.

Don Boudreaux April 25, 2011 at 11:36 am

Please tell me why my analogy fails.

spydermelon April 25, 2011 at 7:03 pm

With all do respect, it is not the analogy, which is superfluous — it could be anything sold and bought. I like the supermarket idea, actually.

Here is where I think your analogy breaks down.

You say public supermarkets are good (A) and bad (B). Fairfax is good (A); the undefined bad are B.

Your unspoken assumption is that Private schools are good (A) with no possibility of being bad (B).


Public schools are A and B
Private Schools are A.

Here the logic would be how can we get public schools B up to public and private schools A. But you can’t have that, because it allows public schools to exist.

So you drop Fairfax. Your argument becomes:

Supermarkets are all bad (B).
Private Schools are all good (A).

What happened to Public schools good (A)?

Sam Grove April 25, 2011 at 1:36 pm

food is not education

What enormous insight, nobody realized that until you pointed it out for us.

Now tell us what is the point of the analogy and how are education and food alike?

Methinks1776 April 25, 2011 at 2:22 pm

You have obviously never suffered the consequences of eating something you shouldn’t! Dude.

Roland April 25, 2011 at 9:26 am

Does the same analogy apply to the military? Thus do you think outsourcing all military to e.g. Xe Services (aka Blackwater) would also be so much more efficient?
Look at it international. All countries doing well with education have less private schools not more. While none has such ridiculous food system.

robert_o April 25, 2011 at 12:01 pm

Subcontracting is not the same as privatization.

Heather April 25, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Actually, this is not true. I read an article a few weeks ago about public schooling being instituted in one of the African countries. I would have to look up which, now. The public schools are mostly empty, and the private schools, even in the slums where people are living in cardboard shacks are full of students, because their parents want the better quality education for their kids.

muirgeo April 25, 2011 at 9:28 am

“…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?”

Well maybe because ever country that is passing us by in education status has a more thorough public schooling system and greater social safety nets. Many of them provide free higher education. There are NO libertarian designed education systems out there to suggest you have some better alternative.

And yes some people only get food from food stamps, school lunch programs and other welfare.

John V April 25, 2011 at 10:02 am

Lazy thinking. It’s useless comparing little countries to the US that amount to mere counties that are not accurate cross sections of the whole country.

A large and diverse country that accepts poor immigrants from everywhere like the US that is so dissimilar from region to region in every way is never going to compare favorably to a tiny homogeneous place like Denmark.

Looking at Denmark would be more like looking at Farifax, Falls Church and Loudon county in Virginia. I wouldn’t be surprised if their school scores ranked at or near the top in that state…if not the country. Beyond them, look for relatively homogeneous counties or districts with good income and you’ll get the same results.

My forgettable small town school district ranks very high in the state in terms of standardized test scores and SAT’s. Look at demographics and you get a strong indicator to school performance. The US is notorious for bad schools in dense minority poor urban areas….in spite of tons of money and attention. And it’s the same kind of school that excels in wealthier and more socially stable areas. My point on that last sentence is that I’m sure these little countries’ test scores would suffer if their system were applied to our more challenging areas. Demographics matter.

Methinks1776 April 25, 2011 at 2:30 pm

Lazy? Yes. Thinking? Nooooooooo.

And aren’t charter schools and home schooling basically “libertarian design”?

BTW….everywhere I look, parents are augmenting their children’s education. One is teaching his six year-old division and another practically had the kid in a parallel curriculum with a private tutor until she got into one of the top private schools in NYC. I wonder how much of the success students have in “good” public schools is attributable to parents taking on the task of educating their kids outside of school.

brotio April 25, 2011 at 7:20 pm

My dad bought Hooked On Phonics to teach my nieces and nephews to spell, because the government schools weren’t interested in doing that particular job.

Methinks1776 April 25, 2011 at 9:04 pm

He’ll be ponying up for private math lessons soon too. They’ve taken to dumbing down math to the point that members of the teachers’ union can finally understand it. Unfortunately, nobody else can.

Sam Grove April 25, 2011 at 1:40 pm

free higher education

There’s no such thing. The costs are merely socialized, not eliminated.

a more thorough public schooling system

What does that mean in a country where K-12 is almost entirely dominated by the public system, and even above K-12, the government is almost universally involved to a significant extent.

Heather April 25, 2011 at 2:51 pm

Wrong. We have a parallel libertarian school system alive and thriving in this country right now. No one uses it except on a total free-market basis. It is vibrant, rapidly expanding, and the results are consistently top-notch, despite (partly because of) regulation being low to non-existent, for the most part. This system is being used successfully by families of literally every type, including low-income families, single-parent families, families where the parents have little education, and families with special needs kids. Colleges are actively recruiting graduates of this system, because they are well-educated and know how to learn on their own. Their are as many ways of educating the children in this system as there are children. Curriculum and supplementary classes are readily available and reasonably priced. The price range for such schooling can be from almost nothing to close to private school tuition–but that depends on the wants and needs of the student or family, and a lower-cost version is NOT necessarily inferior in quality!
What is this libertarian educational phenomenon? Homeschooling!

W.P. Kelpfroth April 25, 2011 at 9:33 am

The grocery analogy is not very good because it leaves out a significant variable: the groceries. Suppose the law mandated that all groceries must attend the store, regardless of whether or not a particular vegetable is rotten. You’ve probably heard the saying ‘One rotten apple spoils the barrel’, and it’s a given in education.
Some kids aren’t ready for the level of education into which they’re placed, and tend to reduce the quality of education for everyone else. Solution: the principal should have the discretion of expelling the kids on whom education is wasted. Welcome them back when they’re ready, hold adult education classes in the evenings, book clubs; there’s a range of educational activities that aren’t the industrial teaching model, but the important consideration is that ‘free’ education should be a privilege of those who can take advantage of it, when they’re ready to take advantage of it, and not just a baby-sitting service for delinquents.

Dan April 26, 2011 at 12:57 am

Free education? No such thing. Least costly is library card. Russ roberts and others contribute to a less costly education with their contributions to websites like this. I appreciate this site and am learning daily from it.

Ron H. April 26, 2011 at 5:35 am

Ahhhh. If I’m not mistaken, I think you just explained why the analogy is a good one.

Downsize DC April 25, 2011 at 10:12 am

Great post! We can apply the same argument to postal services and even to licensing and safety regulations. After all, why must government “guarantee” that our food and drugs are “safe” (or safe enough)? Wouldn’t private insurance companies be able to do that more effectively, at lower cost, and with greater choice to the consumer?

Robert April 25, 2011 at 10:47 am

And Paul Krugman would write op-ed after op-ed defending government-run supermarkets……………..(if Democrats were proponents).

Craig K April 25, 2011 at 11:13 am

This is a great analogy. It also tackles the “everyone deserves an education” argument as well. Everyone deserves groceries, and under our current system, everyone has access to groceries. For those that can’t afford groceries, we have privately run kitchens for them to eat at, and food pantries as well. Nobody in America has to go hungry.

JohnK April 25, 2011 at 12:02 pm

If the government controlled the food supply, you can be sure that any talk of privatizing it would be met with cries of “There will be mass starvation! Nobody will have food if it is up to heartless capitalist businessmen to provide it! Oh the horror!”

BenK April 25, 2011 at 12:07 pm

I enjoy the analogy but find it fatally flawed; yes, economists will tend to focus on money (a forgivable bias in economists, less forgivable in educators), but money isn’t the biggest problem with our schools at this point.

Imagine that each neighborhood funds a grocery store and forces each person to go to that grocery store many hours each day for almost a decade of their life, during which time they are forced to sit in front of a very restricted buffet of raw ingrediants and are judged on their ability to compose and consume strange sandwiches repeatedly.

This is the essential problem with our school system; only a very few students find the curricula meet their needs; the rest are effectively imprisoned in a system that does not educate them for the life they want to lead. If the poorest school in the worst neighborhood were populated with motivated students facing suitable curricula and supported by their families, they would succeed; meanwhile, even at the most wealthy schools in the US today, students are performing well below their true capacity because the educational system is a poor fit.

Instead of redistributionist efforts (because we know that we can’t just throw money at the problem – that money will come from some other school) we need to change the whole system. Students need to be guaranteed 12 years of free education, to be taken at a time of their own choosing at the grade or course level into which they test. Age homogeneity should be jettisoned; disruptive students should forfeit the remainder of their free year and be invited to try again next year based on a fresh testing.

The schools will be safer, more energetic, more focused on education rather than discipline. Students will not have been short-changed from what they are guaranteed now. Local tax funds can still support the local elementary, middle and high schools; state tax funds can support the state colleges and universities. If an area completely lacks elementary schools, for example (and doesn’t charge any local taxes for them, as a result), perhaps they will find nearby districts willing to take students for ‘out of district’ tuition rates. Otherwise, homeschooling will need to fill in the gap until the students test for admission to a community college, vocational school, or university.

Private schools will still be able to charge whatever they want, and will thrive if they offer value for that money.

yet another Dave April 25, 2011 at 3:40 pm

You start with the bold “I enjoy the analogy but find it fatally flawed…” but never explain any flaw in the analogy, much less why such a flaw is fatal. Instead you describe your one-size-fits-all solution and assert that it would be better.

Please clarify.

Ron H. April 26, 2011 at 5:46 am

…only a very few students find the curricula meet their needs; the rest are effectively imprisoned in a system that does not educate them for the life they want to lead.

You know, you’re right about that. My grandson, who is in 2nd grade, wants to be a cowboy. I’m not sure the school he attends is meeting his needs, or educating him for the life he want’s to lead. What do you recommend?

Perhaps there IS a reason children have parents.

Ron H. April 26, 2011 at 5:47 am

Sorry, that was intended as a reply to BenK.

Colin April 25, 2011 at 1:21 pm

Wow Don, great minds think alike. I came up with the same analogy back in December:

Friedman's Ghost April 25, 2011 at 1:28 pm

A couple of thoughts for you.

1. What if public schools were run like grocery stores? I argue the vast majority of people (especially the poor) would be buying unhealthy, crappy educations because they’re cheaper and look more fun.

2. Americans love crap. No matter how bad the programming, people still give thousand$/yr for cable.

3. Finally, I would rephrase with the folliwing: “Imagine if instead of having the choice to go to whatever grocery store your WALLET ALLOWS”.

Not everybody in America can afford to shop at Whole Foods or Trader Joes. The same reality applies to education since very few people are realistically pondering their option between Yale or a Community College.

Sam Grove April 25, 2011 at 2:10 pm

Yes, let’s ignore the reality of public education as it currently exists, where wealthy districts have much better results that inner city schools.

Let’s ignore D.C. which has about the highest per pupil expenditure in the U.S. and among the worst results.

Friedman's Ghost April 25, 2011 at 2:47 pm

@Sam: I am not ignoring it with my comment but making an observation. If you give D.C. folks choice indeed some will opt for thwe best possible schooling but my argument is most will opt for the easier and ‘more fun’ school(s). All one needs to do is to look at the top rated broadcast and cable television programs to see what the majority would choose.

Agreed it is not about money. It is about VALUES. The ‘wealthy’ distrcts value education and insist on quality.

JohnK April 25, 2011 at 2:22 pm

You’ve convinced me.

We need the government to run the grocery stores.

Obviously the vast majority of Americans are too stupid to know what to eat, and enlightened people such as yourself should dictate it to them.

We should set the penalties very high for non-compliance. How does a year in prison for every deviation from the State Menu sound?

You can impose your vision of how stupid Americans should eat upon everyone!

You’ll cure the country of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and all other preventable diseases caused by poor diet!

All hail Friedman’s Ghost!

Never mind. Michelle Obama beat you to it.

Friedman's Ghost April 25, 2011 at 2:54 pm

@JohnK: Your response is so banal I worry you may be on the verge of a stroke. Relax.

Where in point #1 do I mention the ‘state’ should actually run grocery stores? My statement is simply if the state did (and people were actually able to choose) I believe they would opt for the crap. I could care less if they do just making an observation based on American reality.

If Americans want to eat crap then I say let them. If they want crap education then I say go for it. In fact, I suggest (lest you think I want to ‘mandate’) you grab a candy bar and relax.

JohnK April 25, 2011 at 3:01 pm

I feel honored that someone so superior as yourself would respond to my post.
Very honored.
Your superiority shows in your obvious disdain for the average person, as well as your ability to divine what poor choices they would make if given a chance.
Because of this I feel you should be given the power to make choices for others, since they obviously cannot be trusted to make choices for themselves.

Again, I feel honored to be in the presence of someone worthy to be my ruler.

All Hail Friedman’s Ghost!

Friedman's Ghost April 25, 2011 at 3:07 pm

Yep! You ratted me out John! I am an evil Democrat who gave money to the DNC. Actually, my job is to sit at a public university and lurk on libretarian and right-wing blogs to make comments to flush out Glen Beck followers.

Not getting anything by you JohnK…

yet another Dave April 25, 2011 at 6:19 pm

1. What if public schools were run like grocery stores? I argue the vast majority of people (especially the poor) would be buying unhealthy, crappy educations because they’re cheaper and look more fun.

I do not share your elitist and derisive opinion of “the vast majority of people (especially the poor).” Thanks to competitive markets, a tremendous variety of healthy and affordable foods are readily available at almost every grocery store. That wouldn’t be the case if there was no demand for them, so your argument looks very weak to me.

2. Americans love crap. No matter how bad the programming, people still give thousand$/yr for cable.

This is just another elitist and derisive comment from you – not sharing your taste in entertainment does not equate to loving crap. But again, thanks to competitive markets, scores of entertainment options are affordable to even the “poor” in America.

3. Finally, I would rephrase with the folliwing: “Imagine if instead of having the choice to go to whatever grocery store your WALLET ALLOWS”.

That would be great! Thanks to competitive markets, a tremendous variety of healthy and tasty foods are widely available and affordable in most grocery stores in America. (For example, the days of getting fresh fruit and vegetables only in the local season are long gone; frozen foods offer a vastly broader variety than what was available years ago, etc.) Several grocery chains specialize in providing very low prices by dispensing with some amenities rather than sacrificing food quality. Again, you don’t seem to have a point.

GMUisForLosers April 25, 2011 at 2:02 pm

Don you are a silly person. Your university is no better than a K-12 public school. Your income comes from the government, directly and indirectly. Directly because you are (GMU is) owned by the government. Indirectly through government issuance of grants and student loans. The government has destroyed the education system in America, through its interference, by supplying money in the form of loans and grants to students. The education system in America is a joke. It promotes nothing but stupidity.

Joel April 25, 2011 at 2:33 pm

Dear Don,

I respectfully disagree with your position on this issue. You’re analogy is superbly flawed and your assumptions are, generally, incorrect. You obviously prefer “private” to “public,” and your argument seems to be more concerned with your own ideology than with any facts or any circumstances of reality.

The first four paragraphs of your attack on public education are entirely valid–in fact, I initially came to your article based on a short excerpt from these paragraphs. I agree that these things are a problem–what I disagree with, and to a very large degree, is your proposed solution.

Bureaucracy exists for a reason and it serves a very valid purpose within the American framework. The point? To provide services to the public that the private sector can not provide or will not provide–by extension, services that the private sector cannot or will not provide in a manner consistent with American policy, law, or ideology.

To understand how this fits with education, we must first examine the place of education within American culture, and more pertinently, within the American economy. Culturally (and ideologically) America has guaranteed a public education to all children who are legal residents for a long time now. There are a couple of reasons for this, and you can pick which ones you care about:

1) All children deserve a decent education, regardless of the economic status of their parents.

2) Providing education (at the least, someone to watch them during the day) to students will ease strain on parents, allowing them to be more productive and contribute more to the economy.

3) Providing education to all students increases our nation’s economic opportunity in the future.

So whether or not you care about the kids, it’s pretty clear that our nation’s well being id dependent on education–let enough kids fall through the cracks and we will continue our inevitable decline in the global market.

If we can agree that at least one (if not all) of these points is valid, allow me to make a claim:

Private education can not bear the load of education within our society.

I think we can agree on that too. It is unrealistic to expect a system of solely private education to ever be successful. I think we can fairly easily agree on that. So this leads to a couple of questions: What role should private education play? How should the government deal with private educators and families that choose to pay for private education.

The first answer that comes to mind is that those families should be reimbursed for taxes spent on public education that they are not using, rather through direct reimbursement or through a voucher system of sorts. This certainly would feel right to someone who’s paying for education, but such a system is inconsistent with the way bureaucracy in America works. By this logic, single individuals and couples with no children should never have to pay taxes to public education. Furthermore, we’ve already claimed that public education benefits the entire community and the entire nation, not just the individuals who actually receive an education. The schools in a community affect property values, crime rates, profitability of local businesses, investment, etc.

So, whether or not you ever step foot in a public school, you’re certainly benefitted by it–the same way you benefit from roads you’ll never drive on.

Now, you’re points about public education having flaws are very valid–but the solution is to fix those flaws within the current system instead of replacing the current model with a private system that cannot possibly fulfill the needs of the nation.

yet another Dave April 25, 2011 at 3:23 pm

I for one find you undefended assertions totally unconvincing. You used lots of words to explain that what you assume to be true is what you say is true – how ’bout an argument?

yet another Dave April 25, 2011 at 3:24 pm

D’OH! “you undefended” = “your undefended”

Methinks1776 April 25, 2011 at 4:04 pm

Your post boils down to your lack of imagination. You can’t imagine a different system, thus everything else must be worse.

You are right about one thing: these vast, sluggish bureaucracies exist for a reason – just not a good one.

WhiskeyJim April 25, 2011 at 5:12 pm

You make 3 claims on education, and then make this conclusion:

“Private education can not bear the load of education within our society.”

I do not believe you have established any of your premises, but more importantly, how your conclusion follows from them, since you offer no reason for the conclusion other than ‘children will fall through the cracks” in a privatized system.

IOW, I do not follow your logic, if there is one, in your post.

BTW, one of the primary reasons government took over education was to instill a belief in government bureaucracy. It is on the public progressive record. So you missed that one, and it is indeed a large one.

Slappy McFee April 25, 2011 at 5:17 pm

That and to make sure some groups children were “properly” “educated”…….

Ron H. April 26, 2011 at 6:11 am


I don’t have time to address everything that’s wrong with your long rambling comment, and I see that most of it has been done already, by people who, in my opinion, are being too kind.

I’ll just address your perception that Don prefers private to public schools. While this may be true, as private almost always provides better value, I can’t speak for Don, so I will just guess that his point may have more to do with choice.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have the choices in education that we have in groceries, where dozens of businesses compete for our dollars by providing high quality products at low prices? This is only possible in a free market, with private businesses.

Opinion_Nation April 25, 2011 at 2:38 pm

One thing you’re leaving out is that, under the public grocer system, the private grocers must compete with a monopolist practicing predatory pricing (i.e. it gives its product away for free). The only way to survive commercially would be to offer high-end groceries to high-end buyers at vanity prices. The only private alternative to government cheese would be Whole Foods. As with educational choices under the public school system, poor and middle class families would be left out.

Kevin Jackson April 25, 2011 at 3:00 pm

Here a way to rate a school:
Are the students grouped by knowledge, ability and intellect or by age?
If it’s by age, run away!

WhiskeyJim April 25, 2011 at 5:20 pm

I am fond of relating my own experience. From grade 2 through 8, I literally sat at the back of the classroom, in some years at a separate group of desks with 3-4 others, reading books and playing games for 75%+ of the school year. I grew up at a time when skipping grades was seen as not conducive to a child’s social development.

What did that do other than waste years of my precious time? Well, it did teach me that I didn’t have to work at anything. And it helped ostracize me from my social ‘equals’ (which I thought was the goal).

Discipline I learned from working 20-30 hours a week since age 12. I certainly did not learn it from school. Luckily my mother covered for me when I skipped school so much, given that it was a horribly boring waste of time.

Scott April 25, 2011 at 3:15 pm

I used a similar analogy for healthcare costs. Krugman think’s that patients are not consumers and essentially he is correct as they don’t typical handle the purchasing decision, hence shy we have very high health care costs.

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