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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Don’t Personalize the Political

It's the system.

A rhetorical trap that many people, including libertarians, fall into is blaming individuals for problems that are ultimately attributable to the political-economic structure.  You see this when people (though usually not libertarians) say that things will be much better if we “clean house” and get the “right people” in office. As I and others have argued, imagining that new politicians will lead to any substantial change is like trying to prevent the sinking of the Titanic by rearranging the deck chairs.  It is a superficial change that will not solve a deeply structural problem.

Although most libertarians would recognize the problem with the “changing politicians” argument, some of them do something similar with other issues.  I have heard libertarians criticize the public school system on grounds that teachers and administrators are either lazy and incompetent or are ill-intentioned statists out to indoctrinate our children into their evil worldview.  First, note that they cannot be both!  If they are that incompetent, it’s hard to imagine they are capable of hatching an effective plan to indoctrinate.  The same contradiction was at play in the O. J. Simpson trial, when his defenders called the LAPD both incompetent and engaged in a sophisticated plot to frame him.

In addition, blaming teachers for the very real failings of the public schools is much like blaming individual politicians for the structural failures of the political system.  Just as most libertarians rightly believe that it is not individual politicians who cause politics to fail systematically, but rather the incentive and knowledge problems faced by politicians and bureaucrats thanks to the institutional structure in which they operate, so is it the institutional incentives and knowledge problems of the public schools that lead to administrative bloat, skewed curricula, “teaching to the test,” and lack of engagement by some portion of teachers.  It’s not that teachers are lazy people or scheming statists; rather they operate in an institutional environment that rewards certain kinds of behavior and punishes others.

Systemic Incentives

Unfortunately, the behavior that’s rewarded does not advance educational goals very well, and choices that do so get punished.  One need only think of Jaime Escalante, the math teacher in the Los Angeles public schools immortalized in the movie Stand and Deliver, to see how the very structure of the public schools can frustrate a gifted teacher’s attempts to do the right thing for a group of students in desperate need of a good education.  To hope that we could fix education by just having more teachers like him ignores the fact that the systemic incentives of the institution tend to push out innovators and rule-challengers and attract and reward those willing to play the game as it is currently structured.  Fixing education requires changing that institutional structure by empowering parents with meaningful competing choices.

But notice that at the outset I referred to this sort of argument as a rhetorical trap.  It’s not just that blaming teachers or politicians for the failings of the system is an incorrect argument; it’s also that doing so can often push people away from seeing the libertarian alternative.  Everyone knows a public school teacher.  When our argument relies on incompetence or malevolence, those we are trying to persuade are likely to respond with something like, “Well my aunt is a teacher, and I know she tries to do her best for her students.”  Now the libertarian is in a difficult position: Do we really want to be calling people’s friends and relatives incompetent and malevolent, especially when we don’t need to in order to make our argument? This is a rhetorical trap because it’s a good way to lead others to close themselves off to our arguments.

Instead, we should continue to keep the focus on the structural problems and avoid personalizing the failures of government.  Personalizing things is less risky rhetorically with politicians and lawyers, whom many folks already hold in low regard. But when we target with public school teachers or medical practitioners or, yes, college professors, we run a bigger risk of alienating those we are trying to persuade.  The more we can maximize our focus on systemic problems that require structural change and minimize our demonization of particular groups of people, the more theoretically correct and rhetorically persuasive our arguments will be.

  • Steven Horwitz was the Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise in the Department of Economics at Ball State University, where he was also Director of the Institute for the Study of Political Economy. He is the author of Austrian Economics: An Introduction.