Donald Trump’s nominee for the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, is an advocate of school vouchers. One should not exaggerate how much influence she will have in promoting this cause. The United States Department of Education has little direct authority over K-12 education and it certainly should not be given any more, because education is quintessentially a state and local issue. But any cabinet position is a bully pulpit, and classical liberals should hope she uses it to create a more favorable climate for state and local voucher initiatives.
The conventional argument for vouchers, itself classically liberal in nature, is that in the long run they are likely to improve human capital, because they will introduce more competition by supplying more private schools for those parents who want to use them. Schools that do better at matching students with the education that is best for them will gain students at the expense of those that do not. Moreover, more competition will lead to more beneficial innovations that will be shared throughout the K-12 educational system. Thus, even if some schools funded by vouchers do not perform well at first, a more competitive system has greater dynamism than a more government controlled system.
While there is much to be said for the human capital argument, yet another classical liberal argument for vouchers is that they promote a free citizenry by creating schools that compete to instill good values and norms in their students.
My first year with my first born daughter has been an occasion for both personal joy and melancholy public reflection. Governments, both state and federal, created an obstacle course for raising our child. And for many other children the natural obstacles have been exacerbated by bad social norms, most particularly norms against rendering judgments about how people’s living arrangements affect children.
To begin on a happy note, however, the first year has reminded me once again of the transcendence of individual genius. The classics of children’s literature are antic marvels of cheer and cleverness. Reading the best of them allows for adult pleasures as well, because like all great works they offer different line readings and different interpretations. For instance, if one gives Sam the resonant voice of God, Green Eggs and Ham becomes a parable of reconciling man to God’s creation.
But the government has been a constant frustration, making it difficult for a working couple to comply with its laws while also providing personal care for their child. Hiring a nanny requires one to calculate social security, withholding, buy unemployment and workman’s compensation insurance, and obey various federal and state regulations. Quite apart from the absurd nature of some these laws, their intricacy defeated this lawyer from doing the compliance work himself and required the additional expense of hiring an outside service. No wonder the agencies referring nannies all told me that very few of their clients even attempt to follow the law. In this context, complexity makes the law self-defeating.
President Obama weighed in recently on the controversy created by a football player refusing to standing during the playing of the national anthem at the beginning of a game. Colin Kaepernick, a San Francisco 49er’s quarterback, wants to call attention to his view that people of color are oppressed. The President supported him, saying Kaepernick was exercising his constitutional right under the First Amendment. A few days ago Jeffrey Toobin more specifically analogized this issue to a case in which the Supreme Court struck down a law requiring school children to salute the flag, because it violated their beliefs as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The President’s and Toobin’s comments represent a characteristic bit of Progressive misdirection, failing to distinguish between legal and social norms. It is absolutely correct that the government has no right to penalize Kaepernick for his action. Expressive conduct up to burning the American flag should indeed be immune to criminal penalties. But no government official is threatening Kaepernick with official sanctions, although some politicians are exercising their own First Amendment rights to criticize his behavior.
The real question is whether Kaepernick is right to use the time for the national anthem for protest. A directly related question is whether his team or the NFL should tell him to desist and penalize him if he does not. That is an issue to be decided in light of his contract with his team and his team’s contractual relation to the NFL. It is one of private ordering about which the Constitution has nothing to say.
The optimal content of social norms cannot be decided by First Amendment case law.
The New York Times recently reported that in 2006 a German executive at Volkswagen gave a presentation on how the company’s cars could evade emissions tests. Who was the German executive at the root of a scandal that will cost VW shareholders tens of billions? The New York Times stated that it could not identify him or her because of German privacy laws.
This example nicely illustrates how privacy laws undermine liberty. Their direct harm to liberty is clear. Because of fear of liability in Germany, the New York Times cannot exercise its free speech rights in the United States to name a key executive in a story about one of the most important business scandals of the decade.
The harm to society is clear as well. Executives in companies (and officials in government) are likely to behave better if they fear exposure. Indeed, privacy laws will reduce the number of investigate reporters trying to uncover malfeasance. Newspapers are naturally more interested in running stories where names are attached than stories about faceless executives or bureaucrats, because they are more likely to interest readers.
But the laws also impose more indirect, but pervasive costs to liberty. By reducing the power of private social norms to restrain bad behavior, they make a more intrusive state necessary. The less civil society governs itself by decentralized, informal means, such as by circulating information, the more there will be a need for the heavy handed enforcement mechanisms of a top-down bureaucracy.
In the sharing economy, companies like Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb, add value by using resources that would otherwise be idle. The Internet connects people who need transportation or accommodations with people who are willing to provide them. Another substantial advantage is that these same connections permit social norms rather than government regulation to enforce standards of good conduct.
Government has a model for regulating taxis. It generally requires substantial licensing and enforces rules by tracking complaints and disciplining drivers found in violation. But a company like Uber makes much of this regulation unnecessary. First, given its substantial capital investment, it has every interest in checking out drivers itself before it permits them to represent its good name.
But Uber also makes use of social media to assure continuing good behavior of its drivers.
My last post discussed surge pricing (including pricing during emergencies) and how people
often do not appreciate the benefits that such pricing provides. Part of what is going on with
people’s opposition to surge pricing is that they think of it in terms of a social norm – do not take advantage of people who are in difficult circumstances. People focus on this social norm and fail to understand or attend to the long term benefits such pricing provides. The way to address this is to educate people about these benefits, but unfortunately the state often exacerbates the problem by prohibiting such pricing.
There is another problem that I think involves similar issues: driving slowly in the left lane.
Such driving is not merely inconsiderate, it is also dangerous. Why? The left lane allows people who want to pass other cars an avenue to do so. If that lane is blocked, then these people – who want to drive faster – become all bunched up behind the slow driver in the left lane. There is no way for them to pass, since the cars in the other lanes are usually driving more slowly than these cars wish to travel (as is their “right” in the non-left lane). Thus, slow drivers in the left lane cause tailgating, which is dangerous. By contrast, when people can use the left lane to pass, there is no bunching since people who want to drive faster can do so.
What is the slow driver in the left lane thinking? Often they are focused on something else –
talking on their cell phone or to another passenger. When they do avert to the people behind
them, they often feel in the right. Their view is that they are already driving the speed limit or
faster, and no one has a right to drive faster than that. (How do I know this? I have spoken to
many people about the issue.)
Recently, my co-blogger John McGinnis had a great post on surge pricing. His basic point was that surge pricing has both static and dynamic benefits – allocating cabs to those who most need them and increasing the supply of cabbies willing to work at needed times. John also notes that these benefits are missed by most people because of political ignorance.
I agree with all of this, but I want to add a couple of things. Part of the problem with surge pricing is that it conflicts with a social or economic norm that is (partially) accepted in our society. The idea is that prices should be set and should not be adjusted to take advantage of people’s situations. Stores do not increase the price of umbrellas in the rain and people expect that and criticize departures from the norm. Restaurants do not generally charge more to eat at 7:00 than to eat at 5 (except for the rare early bird specials or for lunch menus, which often have smaller portions).
Yet, in other ways surge pricing is permitted. Certainly airplanes adjust the prices based on when they are purchased, as do many other services. So what is going on?
It is not entirely clear, but my guess is that people are simply reacting to norms that they are used to. Some years ago, everyone in the airplane had paid the same price for a coach seat – not so these days. (It helps that not everyone knows what others paid for their seat.) People get used to it. It used to be the case in law firms that people were paid based on seniority – not so these days. Many people did not initially like the changes, but they got used to them.