Show Me the Public Good!

My guest commentary for the Economist’s online higher-education funding debate went up today. Give it a read, but before you do that be sure to take in the October 31 commentary by David W. Breneman, longtime Dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. He offers just the kind of dismissive argument that makes even discussing something as reasonable as the resolution in question— “that  individuals, not the state, should pay for higher education”—next to impossible. Just like environmentalists who strangle global warming debates in the crib by invoking an overwhelming “consensus” about the deadly threat of man-made greenhouse gasses, Breneman essentially declares anyone who would even consider eliminating government subsidies for higher education either dense or bananas.

“The proposition as stated is so extreme as to be absurd, whether considered abstractly as a philosophical principle, or concretely as a policy proposal,” Breneman declares. Apparently, everyone knows that higher education is not just a private but also a public good, and state support is necessary to produce enough of higher ed’s public benefits. And how do we know this? Well, we just do:

The fact that educated people earn more income is reason for them to bear much of the cost, but if any state left the total of such investment to the pure, unsubsidised market, the amount of education purchased would fall short of the socially optimal level. This is an efficiency argument, and although calculating the precise shares of public and private benefits eludes us [italics added], societies everywhere have found it in their interest to encourage more education than the market alone would produce.

So, if I understand correctly, even though no one has actually calculated the public benefits of higher education, we know that these benefits exist, and we know that we must have government subsidies to get these benefits because, darn it, lots of governments have always subsidized higher education to get these benefits. You know, the benefits that we can’t measure in any meaningful way. 

Given the flimsy foundation of Breneman’s argument, it seems a bit excessive to declare “absurd” the mere notion of fully private funding for higher education. This is even more the case when you contrast Breneman’s argument with the very hard evidence we have that government subsidization of students and schools is wasteful, corrupted by politics, and, most tellingly, inversely correlated with economic growth, all which are realities I touch on in my statement. Together, these things clearly put the logical—if not political—burden on the champions of subsidies to prove their case, but unfortunately they find it easier just to dismiss the question entirely.