Why is the Right Soft on Education?
By Bryan Caplan
When the American left complains about domestic poverty, you might think the American right’s standard response would be either:
1. “What poverty? By any sensible standard, the ‘American poor’ are rich.”
2. “America doesn’t have a poverty problem; it’s the American poor who have a conscientiousness problem.”
Unfortunately, few right-wingers embrace either of these strong responses. The modal reaction, rather, is:
3. “We need more and better education for the poor.”
The “better” part isn’t necessarily a call for bigger government; sometimes it’s a plea to convert existing expenditures into vouchers to check the power of the public school monopoly. The “more” part, however, is clearly a call for bigger government – to pile even more government spending on top of the existing annual trillion dollar pan-boondoggle. While it’s easy to understand why “big government conservatives” would favor such an answer, even avowed “limited government conservatives” and “free-market economists” often rebut calls for a new War on Poverty with calls for a redoubled War on Ignorance.
What’s going on? A few stories to ponder:
1. Right-wingers correctly judge that more and better education is a great poverty remedy. Alas, I can’t take this one too seriously.
2. Right-wingers think in positive-sum terms. Conventional poverty programs are redistributionist, but education spending purports to “grow the pie” by investing in human capital.
3. Right-wingers love the work ethic. Conventional poverty programs are need-based, but education is effort-based; no matter how much the government pours into education, the poor can’t profit from it without years of hard work.
4. Right-wingers are meritocratic. Education, unlike conventional poverty programs, ranks people from best to worst based on their performance – and helps the well-ranked to escape poverty.