Shut Up, Kid! (It's What You Really Want Anyway)

Do university students really prefer to be infantilized?

If you're college age, you're a child.

Or so says Salon writer Eric Posner.

No, he's not confused about the legal age of majority. What he means is that college students are immature and need to be treated accordingly. Paternalism, according to Posner, is entirely appropriate: you and your peers "must be protected like children while being prepared to be adults." Furthermore, he argues, it's what you really want, whether you know it or not.

Here's the context:

Lately, a moral panic about speech and sexual activity in universities has reached a crescendo. Universities have strengthened rules prohibiting offensive speech typically targeted at racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities; taken it upon themselves to issue “trigger warnings” to students when courses offer content that might upset them; banned sexual acts that fall short of rape under criminal law but are on the borderline of coercion; and limited due process protections of students accused of violating these rules.

Libertarians, Posner observes, "are up in arms. They see these rules as an assault on free speech and individual liberty. They think universities are treating students like children. And they are right."

But the ever-more paternalistic universities are also right, he insists: "Students today are more like children than adults and need protection."

Posner appeals to pedagogy, history, and, believe it or not, libertarian principle. In the end, I think he's wrong on all counts, but the pedagogical issue alone could fill a book, and the historical points he makes are accurate but misleading, and ultimately irrelevant.

Where his argument is the most interesting — and the most interestingly wrong — is in his appeal to the principles of free-market economics.

Yes, many libertarians are outraged by the increasingly authoritarian trend on (at least public) university campuses. And Posner does a surprisingly good job of addressing some typical libertarian arguments.

He appeals, for instance, to the right of exit: "Students who are unhappy with the codes and values on campus can take their views to forums outside of campus — to the town square, for example."

Furthermore, he contends, the stifling groupthink of the modern academy is a result of consumer sovereignty:

More important — at least for libertarian partisans of the free market — the universities are simply catering to demand in the marketplace for education.

While critics sometimes give the impression that lefty professors and clueless administrators originated the speech and sex codes, the truth is that universities adopted them because that’s what most students want.

If students want to learn biology and art history in an environment where they needn’t worry about being offended or raped, why shouldn’t they?

Here is where he sounds his most libertarian: "As long as universities are free to choose whatever rules they want, students with different views can sort themselves into universities with different rules."

But notice the sleight of hand. He goes from talking about what would happen in free markets to assuming that the current university system is free and market-driven.

He even sees state schools as part of what "libertarian partisans" mean by the free market: "Indeed, students who want the greatest speech protections can attend public universities, which (unlike private universities) are governed by the First Amendment."

At first glance, his argument is reminiscent of the libertarian position on private gun bans.

When Walmart, for example, proscribed customers from bringing firearms into their stores, whether or not the customer had a concealed-carry permit, many gun-rights advocates cried foul. Doesn't the Second Amendment, at least in combination with a state-issued permit, give a citizen the right to bear arms wherever he or she likes?

Not according to libertarians: Walmart banning guns on its own property is perfectly legitimate, whereas any government banning firearms on someone else's property — or even on so-called public property — is a different story. With Walmart, at least, we are free to take our business elsewhere.

Doesn't a principled consistency require us to support similar decisions on the part of universities?

This is the problem we face over and over again. We say "free market," and they hear something else.

We say "freedom in health care"; they think we mean insurance before Obamacare.

We say "privatize"; they think we mean outsourcing prison security.

We say "laissez-faire"; they think we mean corporate welfare, the military-industrial complex, and central banking.

In fact, central banking is an important parallel here: storing wealth and lending money are both important services. They're not only legitimate from a libertarian perspective; they're critically important to a healthy economy.

But the particular way in which governments cartelize and regulate nominally private banks produces a financial system that is far from free and often dangerous.

It's as if Posner read a libertarian critique of the housing crisis and asked, "Why are libertarians opposed to private lending?"

It is true that advocates of economic freedom often have to accept consumer choices that strike us as baffling or wrongheaded, but that doesn't mean we support the distortions of choice and incentives created by a regulation-hampered market.

This is a basic law of economics: when you subsidize something, you get more of it.

Here's another one: when you artificially limit the supply of a good, you raise the price.

After all but monopolizing basic education, governments then subsidize university tuition (which produces more long-term students than we'd have in a free market) and cartelizes higher education (which allows fewer options than we'd otherwise have).

Here's perhaps the most relevant economic rule of thumb, called moral hazard: when the costs of certain decisions are externalized — that is, when someone else is picking up the tab — those decisions will be made less responsibly. Not only does moral hazard promote reckless choices; it also raises the price of those choices, because you're less budget-conscious than you would be if you had to pay the full bill yourself.

You may be familiar with the argument that moral hazard has created much of the cost crisis in health care, but it also determines the size and shape of academic departments, choices in majors, and graduation requirements. It affects everything about schools as we know them.

Posner suggests that libertarians "reflect on the irony that the private market, in which they normally put faith, reflects a preference among students for speech restrictions."

But modern education is far from a "private market," and the preferences that students express have very little relationship to what economists mean by "demonstrated preferences" in the market, where you consciously give up something to acquire something else.

Only when confronted with the real trade-offs in a world of scarcity can we make informed decisions about how to balance such trade-offs. What Posner describes is more like voting than it is like consumer sovereignty.

Neither Posner nor I can say for sure what demand would look like if we had a free market in education, but it’s hard to imagine that students who had to pay the visible and invisible costs of their choices would choose to be treated like children. In what other market do customers say, in essence, “Here are gobs of money: talk down to me, limit my options, decide what’s important for me, tell me what I’m allowed to say and to hear, stunt my growth”?

In fact, in what other market do we see customers demanding more centralization and homogeneity — fewer options and an ever-narrower range of acceptable preferences?

Libertarians shouldn’t oppose private institutions setting whatever rules they want for voluntary participants, but neither should we let our philosophical opponents pretend that the current university system exemplifies freedom of choice.

We should resist the temptation to assume, a priori, that everything we don’t like about a market is the direct result of the state’s interventions in that area. It might be that some schools in a free, fully private market would become bastions of authoritarian paternalism.

But it seems likely that students would have many more options for escaping such stultifying condescension. There’s every reason to believe that real freedom, in the economy and in education, would produce students who are smarter, more mature, and more responsible in their actions.

In the system Posner advocates, we should expect to see ever more of the opposite — and we are.

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