Civil Society and Its Discontents

Yesterday Slate published a piece arguing that if you send your kids to private school you’re a bad person, albeit not murder/rapist bad. The stated logic was basically (to put it Hirschman terms) that exit undermines voice and that if high status/motivation people exit from schools then they won’t have as much motivation to push for them to get “resources.” The article admitted that this may take a long time to accomplish, but in the meantime one should sacrifice one’s own children as a matter of civic virtue.

Now PEG probably nailed the most obvious response, but a slightly more elaborate way to respond to this is to say that within reason we have more responsibilities to our children than to society as a whole and there’s something very sympathetic about the Obamas putting their daughters in Sidwell Friends regardless of whether its hypocritical and somewhat creepy when the Carters did the consistent thing and put Amy Carter in a DC public school. Indeed, that was basically my initial response in the form of hyperbolic satire. Another way to respond is to dispute the factual premise that exit is a substitute for rather than a complement to voice. Yet another is to observe that public schools are really Tiebout goods and so a strong norm against (openly) private schools would end up driving extreme residential segregation and sprawl.

In a way I think these are true, but also missing the really interesting thing, though Megan bringing in the Tiebout issue gets pretty close to where I want to take this. Suppose there is some baseline of crappy schools and one wishes to replace them with good schools. If one enrolls children in a private school one has purchased the premium education as an open quid pro quo, much as I bought my car in an open quid pro quo from the Honda dealer. On the other hand if one deliberately seeks out a good school district and this is priced-in to one’s home purchase or apartment rent, then one is buying premium education as a Tiebout good. A more general way of describing the latter is that one is buying housing bundled with premium education. What I find interesting is that there are a lot of people who would describe themselves as committed to public education, but who have no qualms whatsoever about spending many many hours looking at cachement zone maps and test scores when making a housing locational decision. That is, some people find it taboo to buy premium education a la carte, but are just fine with buying premium education bundled with housing. How quid pro quos can be less savory than functionally equivalent but indirect exchanges is an emerging research interest of mine and you see similar patterns in all sorts of areas.

I was talking about this with a friend and he suggested that a taboo on public schools is about removing mediating institutions between the individual and the state in which modernity demands removing institutions that form rival bases of power and may reflect tribalism, prejudice, etc. Hence, the laïcité type proposal in Quebec to ban public workers from wearing religious symbols.

I think my friend’s argument has a lot going for it but I worry that it’s incomplete insofar as it doesn’t reflect the subjective reasoning of the people who are suspicious of institutions that rival the state for services and sentiments. With regards to private schools (and other substitutes for public services, like gated communities, private fire-fighting insurance, etc.) I suspect that a big part of it is about the intuition that one is exempting oneself from the common experiences and trying to get more. That is, it’s inegalitarian. The view from the right would be that this sort of thing is a demand that one subjects oneself to the state, but if you take the perspective that “government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together” then it means that refusal to relate to the state is a refusal to relate to the group. This would then trigger what Haidt calls fairness and loyalty moral foundations. Since I believe in Haidt’s emotional dog, rational tail model, I think it’s fair to describe the intuition in this way even if it’s expressed in moral reasoning about utilitarian “harm” concerns like peer spillovers, the political economy of lobbying for “resources,” etc. Similarly, if you take the “there’s no such thing as society” point of view (by which Thatcher really meant that society!=state) you may find it puzzling that a relationship to the state is conflated with a relationship to the group. However this kind of thing is common. For instance, Fiske & Tetlocke note that Marxism is ideologically devoted to “communal sharing” even if in practice it inevitably turns into extreme “authority ranking” in practice. So the upshot is that there may be contempt for mediating institutions that substitute for the state but if you want to pass an ideological Turing test you’ve got to understand that it’s not subjectively understood as statism for its own sake but rather about group egalitarianism that finds its expression in common reliance on the equal goods provided by the state (and with a loophole in which Tiebout competition allows some of our state provided resources to be more equal than others).