Will the Real Jane Galt Please Stand Up?

Megan McArdle of Asymmetrical Information, in a March 19 list of “basics which seem obvious” about U.S. public education (and with which I otherwise mostly agree):

24) To h— with rich people: if you’re in, say, the top 5-10% of the income distribution, you ought to get the same help educating your kids as my parents got, which is to say none.

Megan McArdle in a November 2005 post on measuring prosperity:

While I realize that for some people, the wealthy getting poorer is a feature rather than a bug, this would still decrease net utility in our society. Unless our society gets a lot of net utility from watching rich people suffer, and while this may be true, judging from our tabloids, I’d prefer not to believe that we as a nation are that petty.

All right, zinging someone with a cherry-picked, 16 month-old quote is pretty petty too. But this sentiment expresses a type of libertarianism that I don’t recognize. I know that despite her pseudonym, Megan’s not particularly orthodox, and neither am I: I agree that half the battle for a mass voucher system will be “getting the pricing right” and I don’t see any problem with regressive pricing (however achieved) if that gets the votes. If we can tolerate near-perfect price discrimination in higher education, we can tolerate it in primary and secondary.

But when did this disdain for “rich people” become a “basic that seems obvious?”

UPDATE: Megan responds but misses the point: “Then there’s the taxation is theft crowd. I’m sorry if my nom de blog fooled you, but I’m not that sort of libertarian.” (See also Why Children are a Special Libertarian Case from January 2006.) Actually, I don’t think anyone on the earlier comment thread said that “educating poor children is immoral,” though Blackwing1 did say that “steal[ing] money from Peter to pay for Paul’s children’s education … is, simply, morally evil.” What’s firing up the commenters is the “obvious” proposal to exclude the rich for being rich.

RELATED on Zeal and Activity: Review: The Price of Admission and Higher Education Impartially Considered

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3 Responses to “Will the Real Jane Galt Please Stand Up?”

  1. Julian Sanchez Says:

    I don’t think Jane’s being inconsistent here if you read “the hell with the rich” in the way I thought it was pretty clearly intended, which is as shorthand for:

    (1) The primary responsibility for providing education for a children with an education and otherwise preparing them to be autonomous, responsible adult citizens rests with parents;

    (2) As a backup, we have a shared responsibility for doing this when parents are unable to fulfill this obligation themselves, and so;

    (3) When education is considered as a public or political issue, the focus should be on how to help children whose parents are prevented by poverty from supplying them with an adequate education, not on subsidizing parents who ought to be perfectly capable of meeting their obligations to their children on their own.

    This isn’t just mindless bashing of the affluent (a category that, Jane implies, includes her own parents); it’s a point about the scope of the public obligation in the educational sphere.

  2. Julian Sanchez Says:

    Argh. The first premise was meant to read:

    (1) The primary responsibility for providing children with an education and otherwise preparing them to be autonomous, responsible adult citizens rests with parents;

  3. Timothy Says:

    Hi Julian. Thanks for commenting.

    I certainly agree with Jane’s main arguments here, which I would summarize as (1) the U.S. education system could do better under market incentives and (2) education externalities are large, so society/the state should help provide education. Of course the particulars of (2) can be tricky for libertarians.

    I would also agree with her #24 as you’ve expanded it – although it leaves room for debate on which families need help funding education. Single mother of three? Clearly. Two-income family of three? Depends on the income, but probably. Law partner, single income, with eight kids? Maybe, maybe not.

    So my comment on Jane’s posts is really only a gentle nudge: a pure income test would be far too crude, and she didn’t help the team by the way she expressed it. As I said, making pricing regressive is fine with me (though I don’t love regressiveness) if that means we get a more liquid market in education.

    Thanks again for stopping by – cheers.

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