A Philosopher's Blog

Is Education a Public Good?

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on February 6, 2012
Seal of the United States Department of Education

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While higher education is generally regarded as a good (mainly because folks with college degrees make more than folks who lack such degrees), there has been considerable debate in the United States as to whether or not higher education is a public good.

The United States, like other Western democracies, subsidizes higher education through such means as grants and student loans. There are also numerous state schools that receive their funding primarily from public sources. This public support of education has generally been regarded as a legitimate function of the state (typically based on the view that higher education is a public good), but this has been called into question.

One stock objection against public funding of higher education is that some (or perhaps many) of the taxpayers will either not attend a public college or avail themselves of public funds for education. As such, their tax dollars are being spent in a way that does not benefit them and hence they have the right to insist that public funds not be used to support higher education.

This objection, a version of which was advanced quite some time ago by Thoreau in his discussion of taxes, does have some merit. After all, if the state is taking my money and spending it in ways that do not benefit me (or in ways that I do not approve of) then I would surely have the right to insist that this stop and that my money be spent in ways that benefit me (or that I pay less in taxes).

It might be replied that although my tax dollars might be spent on things that do not directly benefit me, as a citizen I have a duty to contribute to the general good. As a man, I will never get uterine cancer. As an adult, I will never have a birth defect.  However, it would seem odd of me to insist that the state stop spending public money in such areas merely because such spending will not benefit me directly. This can also be expanded beyond specific medical research to all those things that benefit other people but do not directly benefit me. This, as might be imagined, would include many things that those other people would regard as legitimate venues for public funding. As such, the fact that some folks do not pursue higher education at public institutes or making use of public funds hardly seems to justify not providing such funding.

It might be countered that higher education is a purely private good. After all, it could be argued, it would be as unreasonable to expect the state to subsidize my education as it would be for the state to subsidize my business, my crops or my hobbies. The advantages of my education are accrued solely by me and provide no public good-hence the state should not fund higher education on the basis of it being a public good.

One  reply to this is that funding higher education can be seen as purely self interested investing. People with college degrees generally have higher incomes than folks who do not and hence they contribute more tax revenues, thus paying back that investment many times over. Those who do not avail themselves of the public support for higher education gain directly by the fact that these other folks are contributing more in taxes than they would otherwise.

A second reply is that the people who do not avail themselves of public support for higher education benefit from the folks who do. After all, these people will need doctors, lawyers, engineers, accountants, teachers, and other educated people. Many of these educated folks will have been supported, to a degree, by public money (either directly or indirectly). As such, higher education does seem to be a definite public good.

A third reply is that publicly funded higher education contributes significantly to science, technology, medicine and other very practical and beneficial areas. As such, even the folks who do not avail themselves of public support for higher education gain direct advantages from the public spending in this area.

A fourth reply is that publicly funded higher education contributes to the education of citizens and provides a means by which those of lesser financial  means can achieve success, thus making this a public good.

One final objection is that while such funding might have some good results, why should “Joe the plumber” be forced to pay the bill for “Ashley the anthropologist” or “Arthur the art historian”? Or, even worse, why should “Joe” be forced to pay the bill for folks who never graduate or who never get a job?

This objection does have some bite. After all, the budget cuts caused by the meltdown and the currently dominant ideology (which seems to be “punish everyone else for the sins of the financial folks”) mean that less money is being allocated for higher education and it would make sense to ensure that this money is well spent. As might be imagined, the same concern can be raised regarding the billions spent on defense, business subsidies, special interests and so on. In fact, it might be argued that it seems odd to be  really worried that Ashley might get a small Pell grant to study anthropology when vast sums of public money have literally been lost elsewhere.

In reply, while it is reasonable to be concerned about money being wasted, the fact that some people might pursue degrees that some people look down on and the fact that some people might not complete school or get a job do not suffice to show that education should not be supported by public money. To use the obvious analogy, the fact that all investments do not yield a profit is not reason to stop investing. To use another analogy, the fact that all efforts do not succeed is not an argument to stop trying.

Looked at in purely “practical” terms, higher education certainly repays the public good for the investment made in this area.  Obviously, not every investment pays off-but that is hardly to be expected.

Naturally, there are also the other benefits of higher education that are often seen as “intangible”, but a strong enough case has been made for public support that the addition of these reasons would  be more cake piled on a well frosted cake.

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37 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on February 6, 2012 at 8:58 am

    Are the taxpayers allowed to demand some sort of accountability, such checking to see that the kids are actually learning something?

    And how does education get reformed if it is under the grip of state and union control? In that case the people running the system have a vested interest in ensuring the system does not change.

    Sure, the public has an interest in higher education, but there are many dangers to going this route including a slide to mediocrity. It is no accident that most of the top schools are private.

    • anon said, on February 6, 2012 at 12:00 pm

      “Are the taxpayers allowed to demand some sort of accountability, such checking to see that the kids are actually learning something?”
      Sure. I’d love to have accountability, but how does one do that effectively (both cost effective and actually determining how well a school works)?

      “And how does education get reformed if it is under the grip of state and union control? In that case the people running the system have a vested interest in ensuring the system does not change.”
      Are the schools REALLY under the grip of state and union control? In any case, more often than not, the people “running the system” have a vested interest in keeping whatever benefits them, this is not something that is unique to only states or unions.

      I’d say that any slide to mediocricity is a complex social issue, not something caused by publicly funded higher education. Imagine if every college was private. Some would be better than others in certain areas and vise versa, there would be better schools overall and worse schools overall just like there are today with publicly funded schools. Private schools don’t/wouldn’t magically prevent a slide to mediocrity.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 6, 2012 at 5:28 pm

        My own experience (my parents are teachers, many of their friend are teachers, I’m a professor, etc.) most teachers are for better education and as a collective we tend to push for things that do benefit our students. If we were, in fact, mainly self focused then our income surely would be more Romney like.

        Also, suppose that we turned the schools over to private, for-profit companies. Would they run the schools with virtue and devotion to education? Or would they operate to maximize profit and lobby to gain selfish advantages?

        In general, I would say that teachers have been better stewards of education than the private companies have been of our economy.

  2. T. J. Babson said, on February 6, 2012 at 1:33 pm

  3. Douglas Moore said, on February 6, 2012 at 2:08 pm

    The most articulate children I’ve met have been home schooled. They act like adults. I’m not really a big proponent of home schooling but this fact does make me consider whether I should be.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 6, 2012 at 5:22 pm

      It depends on the parents. I’m sure that some parents can do an incredible job, while others would be awful. In my own case, I probably would have to outsource grammar and math. 🙂

      There is also the concern that the kids miss out on the social aspects of school. Of course, that might also be considered a plus.

  4. ajmacdonaldjr said, on February 6, 2012 at 2:48 pm

  5. Edward said, on February 6, 2012 at 6:18 pm

    “To use the obvious analogy, the fact that all investments do not yield a profit is not reason to stop investing.”

    True, but to justify continued investment, it ought to be confirmed that the investment is the reason for the profit. In the case of higher education, I think this is merely assumed. We have statistical data to indicate that generally, people with degrees earn greater income than people without them, and obviously there is a direct connection in the cases of doctors, lawyers, and university educators. But is it generally the case that college education leads to higher income and that a lack of that education leads to lower income? Is it not also possible that the same socio-economic circumstances that tend to lead young people to higher incomes (such as investment capital from family, social connections among professional people, greater ease of transportation, etc.) also tend to lead those young people to university?

    I think that if we are going to discuss the question of whether education is a good, we ought to first address whether education is the cause of prosperity, as opposed to one of its effects.

    • dhammett said, on February 6, 2012 at 9:26 pm

      “we ought to first address whether education is the cause of prosperity, as opposed to one of its effects.”

      We could ask which came first, education or prosperity. I’d argue for education.

      The mere act of education surely began way back when with the passing on of knowledge to the next generation. That Adam, the first teacher, passed on certain knowledge to Cain, Abel, and Seth, cannot be denied (except insofar as one might deny the truth of the Genesis story). He probably used his experience to show (teach) his offspring which fruits were best tasting, which animals might without malice crush a small child, etc. Even if Adam and his progeny are myth, surely the first humans followed the same process in passing on knowledge from adults to children.
      The parent(s)/teacher(s) who most effectively taught their children, likely produced children who functioned best in their world. Those children would have fared better than others, and someone, at some time in history, would have likely labeled those fortunate children more “prosperous”.

      • Edward said, on February 6, 2012 at 10:42 pm

        That’s all obvious enough, but it mischaracterizes my question. The post was about formal higher education through degree granting institutions, and my comment was about the same. The assumption that I’m questioning is not that information makes people better adapted to their circumstances; it’s that college degrees make people wealthier.

        I’m sure you understood what I was asking, and I hope you recognize a difference between the terms “educated” and “degreed.”

        But even turning to your far more general perspective on things, I would still suggest that it’s not a one-directional, causal relationship. Sure, better teachers produce more prosperous youth, but more prosperous youth probably also produces better teachers, insofar as there are more material resources and time to commit to education.

        Still, the general consideration of human history is fairly far from what I’d meant to talk about.

        • Anonymous said, on February 6, 2012 at 11:14 pm

          Dhammet doesn’t do nuance. If you argue for limited government, he’ll assume you want no government. If you try to make a subtle point about education, he’ll assume you are against education and argue education is good.

          • anon said, on February 7, 2012 at 4:09 pm

            It seems that few people who argue for limited government can ever explain what they mean by it.

            • T. J. Babson said, on February 7, 2012 at 5:05 pm

              It’s like the government we have, but smaller and less of a nanny.

            • dhammett said, on February 7, 2012 at 6:00 pm

              Very precise, TJ. Is that a ‘wee bit’ smaller, ‘somewhat smaller’, ‘much smaller’ or just “smaller”.
              And who gets to decide where the shrinking stops? You? Grover Nordquist? Karl Rove? The CEO of GE?

              Sorry, just me being skeptical.

              Douglas @ 2/6 2:08. Your post about ‘home schooling’ really seems to be no more or less relevant to “higher education” than my post about ‘prosperity and education’ @ 2/6 9:26. I don’t mind.

            • T. J. Babson said, on February 7, 2012 at 6:15 pm

              How about we shrink the government to the size the taxpayers are willing to pay for? Do you really support borrowing $0.40 of every dollar the government spends? Do you really think that is sustainable?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 7, 2012 at 6:22 pm

              We might find that the government people think they want is actually smaller than the government we need.

            • dhammett said, on February 7, 2012 at 7:18 pm

              “willing to pay for”

              Depends who’s being asked and ‘what’ he’s being asked to paying for, doesn’t it, TJ?

              Which taxpayers are we talking about here? Libertarian taxpayers may object to borrowing anything at all for overseas military involvement. Ultra conservatives may have a slightly– let’s say– ‘different’ idea of tightening the purse strings than you might have.
              And if the money is borrowed to repair and improve our crumbling infrastructure ? Are we going to be better off if the infrastructure continues to deteriorate –if it fails to keep up with society’s needs?

              Where do you stand? 45cents? 20, 50, 70 cents?

            • T. J. Babson said, on February 7, 2012 at 7:31 pm

              I stand for a balanced budget. If the politicians want to grow government, they should take their case to the people and ask for a tax increase. The idea that we should spend like drunken sailors today and let our kids pay for it all tomorrow is morally repugnant.

            • dhammett said, on February 7, 2012 at 8:16 pm

              Do you support a balanced budget amendment to the US Constitution? Should every state adopt a balanced budget amendment? Would you build any exceptions into the amendments? Should cities and towns be required to balance their budgets?

            • T. J. Babson said, on February 7, 2012 at 8:25 pm

              Yes–all of the above. The only exception I would make would be during a declared war. “Kinetic military actions” and the like should be pay as you go.

            • dhammett said, on February 7, 2012 at 11:29 pm

              No exceptions for recessions or national disasters?

              “Every US state other than Vermont has some form of balanced budget amendment; the precise form varies.” Wikipedia. Vermont does not have a balanced budget amendment, but eleven states rank above it on this list.


              This paragraph from that same article is particularly interesting: “The situation has governors and state legislatures struggling, yet again, to balance their budgets. Texas is currently debating $10 billion in education-related cuts. California, meanwhile, is planning to extend tax increases implemented under former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, but only if voters approve. Other states are relying on budgetary sleight of hand to alleviate their troubles. For example, in Kentucky, Governor Steve Beshear has sought support for a plan to move Medicaid funds pegged for next year to the current year.” I like the last two sentences in particular.

              Apparently a balanced budget amendment at the state level is not a guarantee of a balanced budget. I fear the same might be true at the federal level. It sounds nice, but. . . I fear there would always be wars and rumors of wars, or recessions, or calamities, and other pressing needs, and that, for all intents and purposes, the balanced budget would be an occasionally realized dream punctuated by the reality of ever increasing debt. I wonder if Newt could fit his moon program into the 2014 budget?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 8, 2012 at 2:27 pm

              As you note, one problem with the balanced budget rules is that people are rather adept at finding ways to “balance” budgets without actually creating a balanced budget.

  6. dhammett said, on February 7, 2012 at 12:43 am

    Anonymous: Congratulations! You win the prize. I doubt anyone else has read enough of my posts to make such a generalization. Might I counter your claim with my own. If you argue for limited government, dhammett will ask you how limited, and how it might work. If you try to make a point about education but dhammett doesn’t feel it’s supported by facts, he’ll ask you for the facts. If you claim there’s a line on the tax form where a taxpayer can contribute additional monies to the federal government, he’ll ask you to provide the form and line. If you claim a single hair contains a person’s entire drug history, he’ll ask for a source. If you make any claim and attribute it to an unknown source, I’ll question the claim. If someone makes a universal claim about food stamp recipients based on the times he/she has stood behind them in a supermarket line, I’m going to puke.

    I’m skeptical. I believe more people should be.

    Edward: I apologize.Occasionally I’m careless.

    The title of the article is “Is Education a Public Good” (not “Is Higher Education a Public Good”), Frankly, I didn’t read the article, and I only scanned your post before responding to the last sentence. Now that I’ve read the article, I’m surprised to see that every reference to “education” (perhaps I missed one) includes the word “higher”.

    Had I read the article, and had I responded to your post, I would likely have focused on the undue emphasis on “the degree”. If a student skips college and is capable of producing a valuable work product, he should have the same access to a rewarding career as someone who rode his daddy’s money to a degree in an elite university. The trick, of course, would be to come up with valid and efficient ways to determine whether an individual possesses the necessary knowledge and skills. College degrees do not always lead to accurate conclusions about the abilities of their owners.

  7. Douglas Moore said, on February 7, 2012 at 9:38 pm


    Isn’t it amazing how difficult it is to convince some that making the biggest government in US history may have benefits? Every example of bad leadership I’ve seen at my job involves some sort of micro management, and yet people want whole governments looking over their shoulders.

    We’ll just keep growing until we explode.

    • Douglas Moore said, on February 7, 2012 at 9:39 pm

      *making the biggest government in US history smaller*

    • dhammett said, on February 7, 2012 at 11:54 pm

      One man at a time. The meaning of life. . . Mr Creosote got what he wanted, but not what he expected. What he deserved, but not what he wished for. 🙂

      The opinion below claims that the problem begins at home—home as in individual states.


      My 2/7 11:29 describes one more thing the states don’t seem to be able to do: balance their own budgets–even with balanced budget amendments in place.

      So my 2/7 7:18 pm in response to TJ’s idea of “shrinking the government to the size the taxpayers are willing to pay for” is still relevant.
      dhammett responds: “Depends who’s being asked and ‘what’ he’s being asked to paying for, doesn’t it, TJ?”

      Do you think most of the people clamoring for smaller government really know what they want as opposed to what they need ? What they’re going to get as opposed to what they wish for? “Balance the budget, but don’t touch my Social Security or Medicare, and don’t raise my taxes.” Didn’t someone shout that from the crowd of a political rally during one of the seemingly endless election cycles? Think he or she was the only one thinking that then? Now?

      • T. J. Babson said, on February 8, 2012 at 8:52 am

        dhammett, based on your comments, can I assume that your position is that we should keep borrowing until the bond markets won’t lend us any more, then devalue our currency so that people’s life savings will be rendered worthless? Is that the dhammett plan?

        • dhammett said, on February 8, 2012 at 10:24 am

          What you should “assume” from what I’ve written here is that I have a lot of questions about smaller governments and balanced budgets, etc. that you, so far, have not dealt with. Who’s going to decide what is small enough? Who’s going to choose which programs are valuable in our society and which are not? Is a majority enough? A supermajority? Or something more than a supermajority? Mike makes a great point above: “We might find that the government people think they want is actually smaller than the government we need.” Would a balanced budget have exceptions for anything but war, as you seem to believe? Or should there be provisions for recessions and national disasters?

          You can assume whatever you want. Apparently, you will. But you’re taking the slippery slope approach. As you know, I don’t ascribe to that view.

          George Will once said “All politics takes place on a slippery slope.” In other words, ‘your’ approach will never slide down the slope to its ultimate worst-case scenario, but your opponent’s approach inevitably will.
          That’s baloney.


          • T. J. Babson said, on February 8, 2012 at 12:22 pm

            Rome is burning–you are fiddling.

            • dhammett said, on February 8, 2012 at 1:09 pm

              And still you haven’t provided an alternative you’re willing to defend with details—the whos and the whats and the hows. There are a lot of question marks in the first paragraph of my 10:24 above. Your answer? “Rome is burning–you are fiddling.”

              I don’t advocate big government. I want to know how to get it down to fighting weight (whatever that weight may be, however we may decide what it is, whoever makes those decisions. . .). I’m saying that, if we willy-nilly jump into shrinking the government to some mushily-defined @# level, without considering and satisfactorily answering questions such as I’ve raised, there will be (sometimes very negative) consequences for individuals (rich and poor), groups, states and the country as a whole.

              America has real problems–and you’re printing bumper stickers.

              @# *making the biggest government in US history smaller*
              “How about we shrink the government to the size the taxpayers are willing to pay for?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 8, 2012 at 2:29 pm

              Everything is better with a soundtrack.

            • T. J. Babson said, on February 8, 2012 at 2:44 pm

              5% across the board cuts every year until the budget is balanced.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 9, 2012 at 11:28 am

              What if we have another war or three?

            • dhammett said, on February 8, 2012 at 4:56 pm

              Any room for tax increases?

              So. Answering one question but ignoring the others. . . You’re applying this to federal, state, and local budgets, yes? (If no, why?) I’ve already shown above that most states have balanced budget amendments, but some of them still can’t balance their budgets. And many state amendments have their own provisions which are designed to adapt the budget to unforseen circumstances. Small towns are cutting way back on library services or closing down libraries completely. Of course, everyone can afford a kindle so what the hey. I’ve got some amazon stock. 🙂

              How long do you think the 5% approach will have to be in effect until the budget is “truly balanced”–that is without using any budget gimmickry? Less time than it took for it to get “unbalanced”)? Your answer is important here, because your proposal is like a flat tax in some ways. It seems to assume that all levels and branches of government and all departments within those branches have equal amounts of fat (useless programs, corruption, inefficiencies, pork barrel, inflated salaries, etc.) I think that “may” be an incorrect assumption. And the problem is that those programs that already carry egregious amounts of fat in their systems can lose the 5% without batting an eyelash. Those programs that are already relatively lean or are simply smaller (but by NO means necessarily less important) will feel the pains of such cuts sooner and more acutely.

              Back to the flat tax. Take 10% of a millionaire’s income for taxes and he gathers the excess change from under his sofa cushions, has his servants sift through the vacuum dirt and , voila, he’s ready to move on to the 2012 tax year with a big smile and his lifestyle untouched. Take 10% off a middle-income family, and the cut is noticeable, but easily managed by anyone with reasonable intelligence. Take 10% off a family of three with a 25k/year income, and you’ve slashed the equivalent of two months rent or, perhaps, 10 months of gasoline to drive back and forth to work. Carry that on into the indefinite future of “until the budget is balanced” and you’ve got the poor getting even poorer while the rich, though less rich, are quite comfortable, thank you, and the middle class is beginning to feel the pain a bit. So you make adjustments to the flat tax . Few of the flat tax proposals I’ve seen are truly flat. Exceptions are applied.

              Would there be exceptions to your 5% proposal? At the local level., when small towns begin dropping by the wayside, can a tax be assessed to pay for the sewage system?

  8. T. J. Babson said, on February 8, 2012 at 5:08 pm

    I’m going to start calling you dhammlet, because, like Hamlet, you seem unable to decide upon a course of action. How do you know which sock to put on first in the morning? I am sure it is possible to think of any number of reasons why it is better to start with one rather than the other.

    • dhammett said, on February 8, 2012 at 5:38 pm

      You’re saying we should undertake important government actions without due considering of the consequences?
      Hell, they’re already doing that. Their only considerations are who wins elections and who loses them.

      How’s about we undertake another approach. Let’s institute term limits. I’m all for that, though I fear we’ll collectively be dumb enough to elect the same types into office because of the political blinders so many of us wear. But wait! Are there possible negative consequences to getting to the point where we can actually limit term limits?! You betcha!

      Back to balanced budgets. I’m not talking about riding these issues to death in committees; I’m talking about applying common sense before taking serious actions. But we’ll never get there without answering important questions.

      Too bad there’s not some line in our Constitution that prohibits due deliberation before taking major policy action, right?

      Note: I’m not sure why you kept the double “m” in “dhammett” while retaining the double “t”,but I’m sure there is method it in. . . somewhere.

  9. dhammett said, on February 8, 2012 at 5:18 pm

    “Everything is better with a soundtrack.”

    Dude! The Mayan Shift will be so lame without a soundtrack . . .synced with fireworks.
    And beer and chips and weed and shit.
    And a website:


    Awesome! .

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