‘Wise’ Isn’t the Right Word

NRO’s Carol Iannone calls Checker Finn “wise” because his confidence in free market education has been chastened by his observation of charter schools in Ohio. To draw conclusions about free markets from a system that does not resemble them isn’t wisdom; it’s a non sequitur. As I have written elsewhere over the past month, U.S. charter schools and voucher programs deviate from free markets in crucial ways, and so tell us very little about the merits of real market reform.

The recent spate of neo-conservatives expressing disappointment that tiny, hobbled “school choice” programs haven’t produced free market results calls to mind the Cargo Cultists of the South Pacific. When American military forces left the Melanesian Islands after WW II taking their supplies and equipment with them, some islanders came to believe they could summon forth their own precious “cargo” by mimicking what U.S. forces had done — complete with air traffic control towers and radio headsets made of bamboo. Not surprisingly, this superficial mimicry failed to deliver the goods. To date, U.S. “school choice” programs are to free market education as bamboo headsets are to radio communication — insubstantial imitations of the real thing. They may well be improved in the future, but should not be expected to act like markets until they are.

Finn’s belief that the risible hand of the state is necessary to make markets drive up standards is conspicuously detached from reality. As I pointed out in a piece last year, standards advocates mistakenly assume that high government standards produce excellence, but in fact it is the competitive pursuit of excellence that raises standards:

We didn’t progress from four-inch black-and-white cathode ray tubes to four-foot flat panels because the federal government raised television standards. Apple did not increase the capacity of its iPod from 5 to 80 gigabytes in five years because of some bureaucratic mandate. And the Soviet Union did not collapse because the targets for its five-year plans were insufficiently ambitious.

Progress and innovation in these and almost all other human endeavors have been driven by market incentives: consumer choice, competition among providers, the profit motive. The absence of these incentives — as in the Soviet Union — has led to economic decline and collapse.

Charter schools haven’t produced market-like results because they aren’t markets. We will enjoy market-like results in education when we have real education markets, not before. The dirigisme now so in vogue among neo-cons will produce the same results for them that it did for the central planners who came before them.