Education and the Market

The value of education depends on what one means by "education."

Reacting to the debate between Bryan Caplan and Tyler Cowen on the allocation of education resources that I commented upon in “Those Overeducated Ethiopians,” Brian Moore argues that we’re talking past one another because we’re defining “education” differently.

Cowen means an actual education, a final product — actual knowledge in your brain.  If the school attempting to provide this does it poorly, that is under-education — an insufficient attempt to achieve “education.”  And yes, with this definition, most countries of the world are under-educated, because as he ably points out, they don’t invest much in it, and the quality is poor.  Caplan is using it as “formal education process,” in which case that Mexican village is indeed “over-educated,” because as Cowen notes, that product isn’t very good — so it’s entirely possible that they would be better off spending their resources on things they consider more important.  And those villagers seem to agree, based on Cowen’s description of their purchasing choices.

[…]

But if you have to decide between some vital thing like food and education (as Joyner implies that they are, because he says that they can’t spend on education because of the need to buy food) you better choose food — and if you either spend more on education yourself (private education) or someone else comes in and provides it (public or charity education) even though you’d prefer food, you are, by Caplan’s definition, over-educated.  However, by Joyner’s definition of a standard of education that would improve the qualify of life for a Nigerian or Ethiopian, they are indeed under-educated.  It’s almost like different definitions of concepts lead to different conclusions about whether or not one should have more of that concept!

[…]

Now, for myself, I disagree with Caplan too!  I think using the same word to define “education” in the US and in the developing world obscures much of the important differences between the two situations that need to be considered when making decisions about them.  But he started the conversation, so I’m willing to grant him the privilege of defining the basic terms.  If I want to disagree, I need to focus on that definition — not just use my own and pretend Caplan’s an idiot for not recognizing it.

Moore’s right that defining “education” is either “learning” or “academic credits” or “useful skills” will lead to different conclusions and that we should be intellectually honest about what others in the debate mean, I don’t think my response misapprehended or misrepresented Caplan’s argument.

Caplan’s assertion that “The fact that Nigerians and Bolivians don’t spend more of their hard-earned money on education is a solid free-market reason to conclude that additional education would be a waste of their money” is wrong on it’s own terms.   Because Nigerians and Bolivians have, on the main, extremely limited resources, they simply have to prioritize life’s raw necessities over investment into a future and have little to nothing left over.   That a man spends his money on feeding his children rather than educating them says a lot about the relative priority of survival but very little about the value of education — by any definition one pleases to use.

Only tangentially related side note:  Linksys is currently blocking my access to Moore’s site, which it classifies as “pornography.”   I’d contact him directly but, alas, I can’t get to the site.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. James says:

    We need more Adam Smith and “Freedom, not Free Stuff” Quang Nguyen

  2. Brian Moore says:

    Linksys is currently blocking my access to Moore’s site, which it classifies as “pornography.”   “
    Hmm, that’s weird.  I don’t even know what I would do to fix that. 🙂
    Regarding the topic at hand, I think Caplan’s just using a limited definition of “education” as a good, which may or may not be a good idea.’
    That a man spends his money on feeding his children rather than educating them says a lot about the relative priority of survival but very little about the value of education”
    But one of the few things it does say about the value of education is that it is lower than the value of things that are necessary for survival.  So if you had 10 bucks, and the amount of food you need to feed your family costs $10, but you purchase 5 dollars of education, Caplan would define that as “over-educated.”  Is this a helpful observation?  I don’t know. Obviously you are right and the wider problem is that this man doesn’t have enough resources period, because we’d also want him to have clothing and shelter, and many other things.
    I think (in my opinion of what he’s written) he is not trying to make a judgment on whether the amount of education that a person receives is absolutely too high or too low, it’s that if someone wants to help people, we need to respect their expressed wishes and help them fix problems such as food, clothing, shelter, drinking water, protection from violence that the individual may consider more important than education.
    I may be reading my beliefs into Caplan’s, but I think this is similar to how I feel about environmental issues — people in developing countries desire solutions to more pressing issues such as food or violence more.  Once their short term needs are satisfied, they will become interested in solving environmental problems.  And, if we have limited resources (as any aid agency or charity would) we should respect their wishes about what we should focus that assistance on.

  3. James says:

    A Degree in Steam Trains, probably ol school, then again maybe not.
    Coal looks pretty good from the flat lands of Texas.

  4. Brian Moore says:

    Caplan’s assertion that “The fact that Nigerians and Bolivians don’t spend more of their hard-earned money on education is a solid free-market reason to conclude that additional education would be a waste of their money” is wrong on it’s own terms.
    I think if he were trying to be more clear, he would’ve added: “… as opposed to other things we could spend that education money on that they may value more.”  Again, I may be guilty of trying to imagine meaning where there is none, but reading the rest of his posts this week, they’ve all been about the opportunity cost of pursuing different policies.

  5. James Joyner says:

    But one of the few things it does say about the value of education is that it is lower than the value of things that are necessary for survival.  So if you had 10 bucks, and the amount of food you need to feed your family costs $10, but you purchase 5 dollars of education, Caplan would define that as “over-educated.”  Is this a helpful observation?  I don’t know.

    If his point is simply the truism that people, free to make economic choices, spend their money according to their preferences, it’s a pretty banal point.   If he’s saying that some Nigerians are wasting money on education, relative to the economic returns they’re likely to see, and should instead eat better quality food and satisfy other things lower on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,  he’s making a more novel argument but very unclearly.

    I think (in my opinion of what he’s written) he is not trying to make a judgment on whether the amount of education that a person receives is absolutely too high or too low, it’s that if someone wants to help people, we need to respect their expressed wishes and help them fix problems such as food, clothing, shelter, drinking water, protection from violence that the individual may consider more important than education.

    I don’t have a firm view on that but it strikes me as reasonable enough as a starting point.

  6. Brian Moore says:

    “he’s making a more novel argument but very unclearly.”
    Yeah, I think the problem there is he was essentially transitioning from a debate about education in the US, where most people don’t have a “food or school” constraint to Nigeria, where many more do, and the “over-educated” statement has a very different ring to it.

  7. john personna says:

    Going back to the original I don’t see much confusion:
     

    Libertarians should believe that there’s an oversupply of education for the same reason they believe there’s an oversupply of sport stadiums: The status quo is desperately dependent on government funding.

    Education in this sense is “that which the government provides, which the market does not.”  It will vary a little from nation to nation, but say government tends to educate about social history while markets tend to educate about marketable skills.

    If we were to imagine Nigerians and Bolivians springing for market education, which would we expect it to be, and why?  A night course in colonial history, or a night course in accounting?
     

  8. john personna says:

    (I think Tyler Cowen is right that the picture is distorted at the very bottom, where the society is missing basic skills: literacy, math)

  9. Ben Wolf says:

    . . .  say government tends to educate about social history while markets tend to educate about marketable skills.

    Unfortunately we have no evidence this is actually tru.

  10. john personna says:

    In my life, Ben, I’ve met two kinds of people “going back to school.”  There are those who want a better job and those who are looking for personal enrichment.  In both cases the classes they want (their focus) seems different than, or doesn’t map perfectly to, the curricula designed by the government-education complex.
     
    I’m having a hard time putting this into words, but I think Caplan’s original construction holds a lot of truth.  The government does fund kinds of education that the market wouldn’t provide, in part because the market doesn’t desire them.
     
    There are certainly classes that state schools provide that businesses desire.  Sure.  Without that driver the whole thing would stop.  But it hides something to treat the mapping as 1:1