Herbert Gintis on schooling

And now, a pro-choice argument from the political left. Herb Gintis, like Tom Paine, understands that meaningful choice is possible only when parents have the means to pay for the schooling of their choice. Government finance is needed, but there is no compelling reason to limit this to government-run schools.

Education is one of the few areas of economic life where the model of “regulated competitive delivery” has not penetrated to an appreciable extent. In most market economies the whole range of educational services is delivered by government monopolies, although families who can afford to do so are permitted to opt for private schools. (p. 11)


The government must provide some services monopolistically, because the market failures involved in competitive delivery are excessively costly. Examples include tax collection, police protection, national defense, and regulatory agencies. In each case we can provide compelling reasons why competitive delivery would not work. No such reasons can be given in the case of educational services. Indeed, … competitive delivery of educational services should better meet the private needs of parents and children, while fulfilling the educational systems traditional social functions as well.

People have rather prosaic goals for schools: reading, writing, history, math, and science, punctuality and self- discipline. When they are dissatisfied with what they are getting, they would doubtless benefit from having the power to induce the school to change, using the threat of taking their “business” elsewhere. The existing educational system disempowers parents by obliging them to initiate a complex political dynamic (influence the school board, affect the outcome of a local election, initiate a court battle) against great odds to induce their providers to change. (p. 18)

Herbert Gintis, “The Political Economy of School Choice”, Teachers College Record, 96:3 (Spring 1995).

Herbert Gintis (1940-) is coauthor, with Samuel Bowles, of Schooling in Capitalist America (Basic Books, New York, 1976), and a founder in 1968 of the Union for Radical Political Economics. He is currently Professor at Central European University (Budapest) and External Professor at Santa Fe Institute in the USA.

From the Thought du Jour archive.


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