Fox News pundit John Stossel recently wrote a column that – wait for it! – praised Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education and mocked those who oppose her.
Like many before him, Stossel defends DeVos’ hostility to public schools by invoking the metaphor of free-market competition, which he sees as a bracing corrective to ineffective, wasteful, and teacher-union-dominated public schools.
My consumer reporting taught me that things only work well when they are subject to market competition. Services improve when people are free to shop around and when competitive pressure inspires suppliers to invent better ways of doing things.
DeVos understands that. That’s why she wants to allow parents to choose the schools their kids attend. Schools that do a better job will attract more students. Better schools will grow, while some inferior ones will close.
Inferior schools, like any failing business, should close. It’s a disservice to students to keep them open.
Metaphors can promote clarity when they provide perspective on one concept by drawing parallels to others. But they’re not always helpful. As Amos Tversky observed in Michael Lewis’ newest best-seller, “Because metaphors are vivid and memorable, and because they are not readily subjected to critical analysis, they can have considerable impact on human judgment even when they are inappropriate, useless, or misleading.” When the topic is the future of our public schools, the metaphor of the market is useless, misleading, and downright harmful.
Invisible Hands Don’t Care About Quality.
The metaphors of the market and Adam Smith’s invisible hand of competition explain how we’re better off when business winners and losers are determined by the cumulative impact of individual consumer choices rather than by government dictate.
But this is a very agnostic approach to market value. Since Stossel writes, “I wouldn’t want to be trapped in a bad restaurant while government debated how to improve it,” let’s take restaurants as an example.
So long as they avoid poisoning patrons, the value of restaurants inheres solely in the extent to which they win favor among those who are willing and able to spend money on their menu items. If they do, they succeed. If they don’t, they fail. As a social matter, we don’t care who the winners and losers are. Continue reading