Link:Tim Harford on Private Schools for Global Poor

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

‘Why millions of the world’s poor still choose to go private’ by Tim Harford, Financial Times, 22nd August, 2009

This article refers to something I first heard about a few years ago, but which would probably surprise a few people. There is a growth in private schools amongst low income people in Africa and Asia, not the rising middle class or the rising bourgeoisie but people on very low incomes, 2 dollars or less a day. As Harford points out, publicly provided education is so bad that it’s worth even very poor people paying for private schools. The private schools concerned are not exactly little Etons, low grade buildings and teachers less qualified than publicly employed teachers. The difference is that the private teachers have to turn up to class and do a reasonable job; publicly employed teachers don’t turn up, go to other jobs, or fall asleep in class.

What lessons can be drawn from this? Most generally, education improves with competition between providers, incentives for teachers who perform well and sanctions for teachers who do not pay well. That applies generally to education in general in all countries, and was discussed by Adam Smith in The Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, as I mentioned in my last post. This does not mean we should want the Third World Poor to pay fees for education, it does mean we should hope the governments concerned will use economic incentives for public education, and parents should have a choice of schools bringing a slice of public funding to the school they choose, maybe through government issued education vouchers.

Other lessons can be drawn from this about Third World development. Bad education and the restraints that places on individual, and social, economic chances are not just the result of existing poverty; Third World governments are not passive victims of ‘globalism’ supposedly sucking resources out of the Third World. There is injustice in the way, the wealthier countries behave to Third World countries: support for unjust and economically inefficient governments, blocking imports, trying to plan even well-meaning economic reform from outside. The solution is not to block trade and investment as ‘unfair’ to poor countries, or to pump development aid to governments which are wasteful and best and often kleptomaniac, or to scapegoat financial institutions which are trying to recover loans from governments which have wasted the money.

The ‘anti-globalists’ are right to say that reforms should come from within countries; they might be surprised by how much free marketeers make the same point, and are critical of the way development aid and externally suggested reforms largely benefit politically powerful groups. I don’t suggest that the solution is to cut all aid, but the focus should shift from development aid to humanitarian aid directly delivered to people who need it. Development can only come from governments making the right decisions and making decisions with develop the society as a whole, not influential client groups. Economic restructuring should be largely left to the responsibility of governments, though trade negotiations should lead rich and poor countries to agree on eliminating trade barriers on both sides.

Trade barriers in Third World countries do not benefit the population, they benefit producers with privileged political contacts. Trade barriers push up prices, they push up the price of food for people hovering on the edge of starvation. Open trade means some companies close and economic sectors lose jobs, but also creates incentives for investment in new companies and sectors. An economy cannot succeed as a static entity, it can only create growing wealth for everyone, including the poorest, through change. Growth means change, and means responding to market demands, not state interventions on behalf of politically powerful companies and sectors.

Adam Smith: Republicanism and Military Virtue

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog

Yesterday I looked at how Smith links the progress of commercial society, with all its virtues of education, culture, politeness etc., to the rise of guns used by professional armies. Reading on to An Inquiry into The Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations V.i.e, antique republican military virtues make a return in Adam Smith’s account of modern education. Smith thinks everyone should be educated to some degree, and this should be legally required, but with a multiplicity of providers. He’s very critical of the provision of education by schools and universities, which he argues is arranged to suit teachers not students. He prefers a more personal relationship between students and teachers, based on the availability of different instructors who have passed a public examination but are not employees of the state.

Smith’s model for this is education in Ancient Greece and Rome, particularly with regard to gymnastic and military instruction, both required for all citizens in the ancient republics, and linked with each other because as Smith has already pointed out, ancient warfare rests more on physical strength than war with guns.

At this point Smith is full of admiration for the military courage and capacities of the citizens of ancient republics. He compares this unfavourably with the spirit of modern militias (that is locally raised units of non-professional soldiers who are part-time outside a state of war). Smith has just explained approvingly how military spirit diminishes, and becomes more specialised, as societies move to commerce, prosperity and liberty.

There was an ambiguity in that I didn’t mention which is that Smith suggests the army chief and head of state should be the same, and that the army generals should be those associated with the head if states. This seems to justify early modern monarchical absolutism, which does rest on the idea that the king is the military chief in a very strong sense, and that his aristocracy provides the generals. It might just mean a return to ancient republicanism where military chiefs might be the main elected state official (e.g. Pericles in Athens), and holding a military post was a political honour.

The passage I’m currently considering pushes in the direction of ancient republicanism. Smith belongs with Montesquieu in The Spirit of the Laws (which he often invokes), Wilhelm von Humboldt (in Limits of State Action) and Benjamin Constant in an ambiguity about ancient and modern virtues and liberties. In their different ways, all these ‘Classical Liberals’ are admiring of the freedom and virtue of ancient republics, driven by the struggle for life against nature, the struggle for the city in war, absolute respect for law, and the institutions and traditions of the city. Smith, for example, is very admiring of the importance the Romans gave to the keeping of oaths (Nietzsche suggests in Genealogy of Morals that human history is about breeding an animal that can keep promises). Smith, Montesquiue, Humboldt and Constant also regard the modern world as better than the ancient world in its individual freedoms and the growth of commerce, which reduces military spirit, respect for ancient customs, and love of the state. There are many deep ambiguities in all of them on these issues.

The one way we should definitely not approach this question, is to think the Classical Liberals can be defined as people who were only concerned with ‘negative’ or ‘modern’ liberties, that is of freedom from external constraints rather than freedom which comes from participation in a community, its politics, and civic values, including courage in war and willingness to die for the common good.