Saturday, November 5, 2011

Education and Inequality

Whenever advocating increased government involvement in a particular industry, progressives will typically claim it is a guarantee of greater equity.  In the recent healthcare debate, it was argued that even more extensive government intervention was needed in the healthcare industry because the poor and the middle class were not getting access to good quality healthcare in the way the rich were.  The idea was that if the government were more involved, somehow healthcare access would be more equitable. 

Experience has taught us otherwise.  In England, where I was born, the government is heavily involved in healthcare, to the great detriment of the middle class and the poor.  The National Health Service (NHS) has forced up the price of private health insurance so much that only the well-off can afford it.  But without private health insurance, the patient must accept care from the NHS, which is drastically inferior. 

Still, the idea persists, and not just on the subject of healthcare.  Progressives argue that a heavier government hand in housing—through subsidies, ‘urban renewal’ projects, and public housing—allows for greater equality and could “reduce the class gap” there.  The same argument is made for getting government more involved in the university system, labor agreements and all sorts of other private arrangements and industries. 

The goal of reducing disparity between the rich and the poor may or may not be a noble one, but it is certainly beyond the purview of the national government.  While individuals may be entitled to pursue this or any other societal goal, the Constitution gives the Federal government no authority to attempt to force such outcomes on the American people.  However, it is worth asking whether or not this argument—that more government means less disparity—can hold water, even given its false presumptions. 

The idea that government subsidy or provision of a service is somehow a guarantee of equity between the rich and the poor is undermined completely by the fact that in no other service is the government so heavily involved in as K-12 education, and in no other service is there such a ubiquitous gap between the quality received by the rich and the quality received by the poor. 

Is there any industry or facet of life where the government is less involved and we see a greater degree of inequality between the rich and the poor than education?  Are the grocery stores in rich neighborhoods as different from those in poor neighborhoods as the schools are?  What about the movie theaters?  The shopping malls? 

No difference between a poor and a rich community in America is quite as stark as the state of their schools.  Yet almost all schools are funded and managed by government and staffed by unionized workers.  If the private sector really is the breeding ground for inequality and the government the last, best hope for egalitarianism, one would expect the opposite to be true.