Sunday, May 6, 2012

Education Cannot Be Free Like Air; Water Never Was Free!

Among the many misguided postulates of the "Occupy Wall Street" movement is the view that education is a "right, not a privilege", and should therefore be "free as air and water." (NPR

I would like to address a fallacy in the analogy that education should be "free as air and water." Namely, only one of those things claimed free is truly free: air; water is not. Yet, as professor Rothbard laboriously repeated time and time again: air is not an economic good, it is a condition of human welfare. While one can get air just by inhaling and doing absolutely nothing else; to get water, one needs to actually do something more than opening their mouth. Water does fall freely from the sky, but it needs to be captured in a receptacle in order for it to be of any use; while to draw water from a well, a pond or a river one needs to get to the body of water, and again a receptacle is necessary if that water is to be taken away. Getting to the water costs energy, transport, opportunity cost, etc.—things that are not free. Of course, if the "Occupiers" paid their household bills, they would know that municipal water is one of the utility charges any family pays. Those charges pay for the cost of getting the water to the users, so people do not have to actually go to the ponds and wells to get it. So, while water itself may be "free", getting it in usable form is not. In that respect the call that education should be "free as air and water", is in itself a contradiction.

It is an old adage that knowledge is power. To gain knowledge one needs to invest time and resources—the process of education. In the past university education was reserved for the aristocracies and upper classes, while the masses used to get educated in the trades. Thanks to the rise of democracy and the leveling of the classes, education became equally attainable to everyone in North American society. In more distant times, some of the youth of the middle class could afford to attain a post-secondary education as long as their parents saved up to pay for it, and the young person had the prospect of excelling. If the second condition was not satisfied, there was no economic sense for the money to be spent on a prospect that was sure to end in failure. Above that, the limited spots available to be filled made sure that students competed to get in respectable institutions which offered a return on the investment made by the student's family. To those that were academically inclined, but lacked the finances, scholarships and bursaries were made available, because the institutions investing the money in these students saw a potential return: the school's reputation of academic excellence could be upheld, thereby justifying high tuition fees. Likewise, thanks to the rise in democracy and equality among people, humanity has experienced an unprecedented period of progress. These events are without a shadow of a doubt related in a causal relationship.

In more recent times, however, post-secondary education has become a standard experience for almost all middle class and even most lower class youths. Loose credit has replaced parental prudence; while diminishing academic requirements for admission have made entry available to anyone who wishes to go through a post-secondary institution. As a result, the relative qualitative differences among schools have disappeared. Contrary to popular claims that the price-tag of a post-secondary education is too high, the level of attendance proves that it is in fact too low. Whether students value the money spent on their education by being diligent and attentive in class is perhaps beyond the scope of this article. However, the fact that so many students spend class-time socializing or attending socialistic protests where they make demands that they ought to know are against the laws of logic, suggest that perhaps there is a case to be made for a claim that the recipients of post-secondary education do not value the opportunity given to them.

As already stated, knowledge is power, and since education provides a person with knowledge, it equips that person with power not possessed by the person that does not obtain that knowledge. In theory, this knowledge/power allows the person who possesses it to gain a better life through higher pay. It has been proven time and again that this theory does in fact hold: people with higher education do indeed earn more money that their lower educated counterparts. Since education does provide the recipient with a tangible advantage, there is no ground that it ought to be given for free.

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