Education as a public good

MARTÍN KRAUZE FOR INFOBAE: In the healthy discussion surrounding education, which arose as a result of certain recent statements by Javier Milei, the issue of education as a “public good” is prominent. This is something that for economists has a more or less precise definition. For people, in general, a public good is one provided by the State, perhaps because it “benefits everyone”.

Economists speak of a “positive externality,” that is, a benefit that everyone receives, whether or not they bear its cost. For that reason, the argument goes, the market would “fail” to provide it, at least in sufficient quantity, so the state must do so.

There are two issues, then, that are worth discussing: is formal education a “public good”? and is it correct that the market cannot provide it?

Let’s start with the following example. If Pedro Arias, from Jujuy, graduates as a dental technician, surely this will allow him to achieve a better level of personal life in the future, a clearly “private” benefit for him and his family. To what extent does it benefit Susana Costa, who lives in Bahía Blanca? We could say that Susana benefits because living in a country in which people are better education is better for her, thus, there is some positive externality in Pedro’s education.

Actually, what can be a positive externality for Susana is the predominant culture: the set of values ​​and customs, opinions, beliefs and ideas that are usually reflected later in its institutions, both political and economic. Susana is struck by the “culture” that predominates in her society, but formal education is only part of that training, which is mainly attended by family, friends, neighbors, churches, the media, social networks. social. All of this has an impact on culture: do we have a sub-supply of these things that makes it necessary for the State to do so?

Formal education, then, is mainly a “private” good that generates some “positive externalities” for the culture. The same can be said of the entire educational offer of the private sector, comprising thousands of kindergartens, primary and secondary schools, training centers, universities. It is very common that a good that mainly benefits those who consume also benefit others and this can be applied to many of them The fact that others now value artisanal sourdough bread, or a good coffee, means that I have several places in which to get them near my house: it has generated a “positive benefit” for me. Or the fact that the Japanese have a high rating for the safety of their cars ends up benefiting me because now I can have access to them too, despite the fact that I did not deal much with the subject (a positive technological externality).

The second issue is whether the market can provide that good. We have already said, we are going to find a great offer of formal education in the market, with a great variety that would increase if it were not regulated. The market would not “fail” and would even offer private education for the lower-income sectors if it were not for the State regulations that prohibit it or make it more expensive. James Tooley, a professor at the University of Buckingham, has spent much of his life touring the poorest places on the planet and studying private education there, which parents choose, often over free state schools.

However, it is true that the cost of private education may be beyond the reach of many. That is precisely where the “vouchers” come in. The voucher allows people to choose. Whether they are “private” or “public”, vouchers can be presented as an empowerment tool for these consumers. Now they can choose. If they can be used for private and public schools or universities, vouchers broaden the spectrum of choice for parents or students, and put all those educational establishments in competition who now have to get their resources from their “clients”, as we generally do in our many activities.

Criticism of vouchers focuses in the idea that these people are not capable enough to be able to choose their children’s education, or their own when they are somewhat older. Not everyone thinks that, of course, or dares to say so openly, but this raises a much more important question: if those parents are not capable of choosing their children’s education, are they capable of, say, electing President ? Isn’t this a much more important and complex decision, about which we would never say that they are not capable of making it?

The voucher or scholarship empowers students and parents, subjecting the supplier to competition. That’s how we get the best goods and services, at the best price.