Consumer Sovereignty is a Postulate, Not a Given

Tyler Cowen on school vouchers:

Since Donald Trump has picked Betsy DeVos to be education secretary, many commentators have been pulling out their anti-school choice arguments from the closet, and for the most part it isn’t a pretty sight. To insist on a single government-run school and trash school choice, while out of the other side of one’s mouth criticizing Trump for “authoritarianism,” and other times proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” is from my point of view a pretty poor mix.To be sure, we’re still not sure how well vouchers work, and I would suggest continuing experimentation rather than full-on commitment. Frankly, I find a lot of the voucher advocates unconvincing, but let’s not forget the single most overwhelming (yet neglected) empirical fact about vouchers: they improve parent satisfaction.

… Of course parents may like school choice for reasons other than test scores. To draw from the first link above, parents may like the academic programs, teacher skills, school discipline, safety, student respect for teachers, moral values, class size, teacher-parent relations, parental involvement, and freedom to observe religious traditions, among other facets of school choice.

Perhaps now is the time to remind you that how the buyers like the product is the fundamental standard used by economists for judging public policy? That is not to say it is the final standard all things considered, but surely economists should at least start here and report positive parental satisfaction as a major feature of school choice programs. In fact, I’ll say this: if you’re reading a critique of vouchers and the critic isn’t willing to tell you up front that parents typically like this form of school choice, I suspect the critic isn’t really trying to inform you. [emphasis in original]

…To be sure, you still might not favor school vouchers. You might think they cost too much, you might think they will politicize private schools too much, or you might think they weaken national unity too much, to cite a few possibilities. … You need some actual evidence.

This criticism seems to me to be wrongheaded (I don’t know which ‘commentators’ Tyler is going after – very possibly they are as annoying as he presents them as being, but even if so, I don’t think this is the right way to go after them). Specifically, I think it’s wrongheaded on two counts.

First, it loads the requirement for evidence asymmetrically on one side of the debate and not the other. I think it is perfectly fine to demand evidence for theories of broader plausible-but-unproven consequences of school choice – but one should also then provide evidence to support one’s own broader plausible-but-unproven postulated consequences regarding how parents’ preferences likely reflect benefits in terms of moral values, teacher-parent relations and so on.

Second, it makes what looks to me like an unwarranted claim – that one can reasonably suspect that any critic who doesn’t put parental satisfaction “up front … isn’t really trying to inform you.” This implies that people who don’t emphasize Tyler’s particular metric are engaged in some kind of suppressio veri.

To see why this is wrong, consider the analogy of drug testing. People trying to establish the efficacy, or non-efficacy, of a drug, usually focus on measurables like time to recovery, additional months of life or similar. One could make a plausible argument that there are important benefits which aren’t captured by these metrics, but that are reflected in broad levels of patient satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the drug. Patients have experience of the consequences that may be hard to measure readily, but that may provide valuable knowledge. However, they may also be misguided by the placebo effect, overestimate the true benefits of drugs, or underestimate them and so on.

All this certainly means someone could fairly argue that we need to pay more attention to patient satisfaction than we do. What it does not mean is that someone could fairly argue that anyone who doesn’t talk about patient satisfaction “up front” is probably not interested in informing you about the truth. There’s a reasonable case for focusing on hard metrics, even if they often aren’t as hard as they seem, and even if they don’t encapsulate all of the available evidence. The same is true, pari passu of debates about school vouchers and the like.

Of course, there are broad arguments for school choice that have weaker evidentiary requirements. For example, Harry, if I remember rightly, has suggested that in the absence of strong evidence about the benefits or defects of school choice in general, one ought to defer towards choice as a default, in order to respect people’s autonomy. Respect for the autonomous right to make choices doesn’t require as much evidence as claims based on consumer sovereignty (I would think that all one needs is an absence of strong evidence that choosing is a bad thing to support it). But this critique would start from a quite different place and would treat the underlying disagreement over politics and values as a starting point, rather than suggesting without strong evidence that some commentators are not trying to inform the public. The latter seems to me to be more likely to shut down useful debate than to start or continue it.

NB that in the spirit of the last sentence, I’ll not be publishing comments of the ‘why do you keep on engaging with Tyler Cowen – he’s a [fill in the blank]’ variety. The reason I engage is because I think it’s intellectually useful – people are at liberty to disagree but I would ask them to bring their disagreement elsewhere (if they have specific and substantive disagreements with me or with Cowen that they are prepared to articulate, that’s a different matter).

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.