Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Arguing past each other again

by Andrew Gillen

Kevin Carey’s recent piece calling for a government mandate on information disclosure for colleges attracted the attention of libertarian D.A. Ridgely, who disagrees.

As I see it, they are largely talking past each other, so I’ll try once again to clear this up. The easiest way to see what is going on is the following. Let

A = government funding of higher education
B = government mandates for information disclosure to see how (A) is being spent
C = government regulation of the day to day activities of colleges

Carey wants (A), and thinks that (B) is needed to make sure we’re using the money wisely. Libertarians (Ridgely, Cato) see (B) as leading to (C), which they strongly oppose, and conclude that the only way to avoid (C) is to avoid (A), which is just as well, since they don’t like levying taxes to pay for (A).

This is problematic when they talk to each other, because they are talking about different things. Carey takes (A) as a given, and goes from there, which naturally causes him to focus on (B). Libertarians respond by saying, you shouldn’t take (A) as given, since (A) leads to (B) which leads to (C), which is really bad, so we’d better avoid it by eliminating (A). As a result, they both basically ignore the main point the other is trying to make.

Libertarians ignore Carey’s point that if you have (A), you really need to have (B) too:
Ridgely: I would prefer (as libertarians so often do) to address the various problems with higher education first and foremost by the removal of government funding and the control that is invariably tied to that funding.
And Carey ignores the libertarian point that if you want to avoid (C), you should avoid (A) too.
Carey: It’s almost as if libertarianism as currently practiced by the likes of Ridgely is less a coherent way of thinking about balancing state and individual power and more a way of dressing up reflexive anti-government thinking in the trappings of philosophy…
On a completely different note, a better known Andrew G - Andrew Gelman - picks up on different argument in Carey's piece.
Carey: colleges don't figure out how much money they need to spend and then go get it. Instead, they get as much money as they can and then spend it.
But doesn't it really describe almost anybody?...

I don't see at all what's special about universities here--this just seems like a cheap shot to me. Universities are like other organizations: they're happy to take money that people are willing to give to them. I mean, I don't see Apple saying, "Hey, we have enough money--we're gonna give out i-pods for free."
Gelman is absolutely right that any individual or institution, university or not, will take all the money people will give. But the crucial difference is what they do with it. For instance, if we keep giving Apple more money, diminishing returns will at some point lead them to stop using it to make i-pods, and do something else with it (commenter Paul on Gelman’s blog sort of gets at this point). But because universities are mostly government run or non-profit, they won’t respond to diminishing returns the same way. They’ll keep doing what they’ve always done, such as writing the 21,674th piece of analysis of Shakespeare.

If you think we need all those, then everything is going according to plan. On the other hand, if you think that might be a bit of overkill, then we really should consider changing the revenue streams and incentives that allow and encourage universities to behave in this manner with our money.


Jane S. Shaw said...

Andrew: This clears things up? Happy New Year! There will be lots to talk about.

D.A. Ridgely said...

I don't so much ignore Carey's point as take it as a given that Washington's money comes with Washington's strings. Carey, I take it, believes that more money and more strings will lead to better higher education. I see the history of federal involvement in higher education as providing scant evidence to support that belief. You are correct, however, that we are largely talking past each other in that regard.