When Principles Should Trump Economics

Any proper economic analysis of coercion should at least make an honest effort to count the cost to the victim of being coerced. For example, the coercive practice of compulsory education is so customary now that few ever think about the economic consequences; many do not even consider it a deprivation of the child’s liberty; India (like many other nations) has actually gone so far as to declare that a child has a “right to a free and compulsory education.”

Economists know the concept of “opportunity cost,” but fail to ask “what else might the child be doing? How else might those resources have been deployed?”

As least two options are obvious to fans of alternative education: home education and parent-funded market-regulated government-free schools. Empirical evidence by James Tooley (The Beautiful Tree) and others have shown that these alternatives are often better and less costly than the “free” education provided by government, but the Indian government is displacing and even outlawing alternatives, in favor of its “free and compulsory education.”

The Non-Aggression Principle allows one to short-circuit a lot of back-and-forth theorizing and measuring; it simply and directly states that it is wrong to compel anyone, including children, to attend schools which are not of their choice – or even to compel attendance at all – and wrong to compel others to fund schools against their own free will.

Any economist can speak of the negative economic consequences when voluntary choices are replaced by political and bureaucratic choices made “on behalf of others.” But economists are obliged to participate in a “balancing process” where different yardsticks are often used for the things being compared, and the choice of yardstick often depends on what one is attempting to prove. This is an intellectual tar pit.

Article 26.

(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

The right to choose is not very meaningful, when a) the government defines what education is, b) parents must pay twice, once for the government schools and second for their choice of alternative, and c) many governments are attacking home education and “unregulated” schools – even as the WHO itself declares that these “unregulated” schools are quite directly accountable to their paying customers, the parents.

We cannot ignore the key word in this text: such education shall be compulsory for the elementary years – in spite of evidence that most of those years are spent in seat-warming, wheel-spinning exercises of little actual value to the children’s education. This entire exercise ignores the opportunity cost to the child; it treats the child’s time and choices as having no value.

The language above seems to echo that from the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Article 13.
1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to education. They agree that education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity, and shall strengthen the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. They further agree that education shall enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society, promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations and all racial, ethnic or religious groups, and further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

2.The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize that, with a view to achieving the full realization of this right:
(a) primary education shall be compulsory and available free to all;

An institution, allegedly to promote human rights and fundamental freedoms, begins with compulsion. How shall we beat and coerce children into freedom, exactly?

A fundamental problem with compulsory education is that the person with the stick gets to define “what is education?” That party gets to define things like “what is freedom?” It gets to declare that “Arbeit macht frei,” if it wishes.

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