September 16, 2019

Horse 2595 - Private Schools Do Not Deserve Taxpayer Funding; So Let's Stop Pretending

I always find it immensely hypocritical when you have people complaining that their right to free speech is being impinged while at the same time, they are getting paid to make that complaint on national television or in the newspaper. Likewise, I find it also immensely hypocritical to accuse an imagined enemy of using rhetoric to engage in class warfare, while at the same time, getting prepared to make that comment on national television or in the newspaper. If on the battlefield of ideas, you happen to be backed by the equivalent of a multi-billion-dollar army, then accusing the enemy of class warfare from the safe fortress of a network of daily newspapers, is hypocrisy writ large.

That is exactly what the Daily Telegraph did last week, with their fore gunner Louise Roberts. Usually she writes pieces in the RendezView section of the newspaper but I suppose that in keeping with the editorial policy of the newspaper to rotate the opinion writers, it made sense to put her up in the front glasshouse of the lumbering B-27 Mutilator that is the Daily Telegraph¹.
RENDEZVIEW: Attacking parents who privately educate their children is misguided class warfare. We only have one chance to give our children the best education we can source and afford, writes Louise Roberts.
- Daily Telegraph, 12th Sep 2019

To be fair it's not a badly written piece. From the standpoint of the quality of the writing, this is more of a conversational piece, which works well for the kind of tone trying to be conveyed. It's just that this piece is replete with snowclone arguments, and falls back into trope (which of itself isn't a bad thing) but its biggest problem is that the whole thing starts out as the formal fallacy of affirming the consequent.

This piece of rhetoric which is being used as a defence of public funds going to private schools, starts out with declarative statements and then attempts to back them up. There is nothing new here and I have seen these sorts of things before. If you probe the actual validity of the statements being presented as fact, you very quickly find that they simply do not stand up to the rules of logic.

The argument in these kind of pieces without exception is thus:
1. People have a need and a right to be educated in a modern society.
2. The Government in addressing this need and right has an obligation to fund education.
3. Parents have a right to choose the manner in which their children are educated.
4. Therefore, the government has an obligation to fund the manner in which people's children are educated.

Occasionally there are two corollaries:
4a. People who pay more in tax are more virtuous.
4b. It's not really defending privilege.

Maybe even throw in:
5. Some of my best friends are X.

This piece by Ms Roberts visits all of the well-worn tropes on a tropetastic tour across the battlefield of rhetoric. As front gunner, it is her job to spray fire indiscriminately; which is why this piece takes the form that it does.

"As parents we are all on the same trajectory here; we get one chance to give our sons and daughters the best education we can source and afford."

I don't have a problem with this in principle. I will even go so far as to say that it should be self-evident that parents want the best for their children; which does include buying advantage in some cases. I will say though that children by virtue of being citizens of the Commonwealth, deserve the best education possible regardless of what their parents can afford.
The first three statements in the chain of logic are perfectly sound. However, the fourth statement which is usually presented as a 'therefore', is presented here as the opening sentences.

"If your children attend private school, they still deserve tax-payer funding.
After all, a key platform of a caring and democratic society is allocating cash to educate our youth."

Whenever I ask about the validity of the fourth statement because I do not think that it logically follows from the previous three, I am always given some vapid argument about how parents that choose private education are less of a drain on the public system.
The problem that I have with that is that because the government has an obligation to provide public education, then that funding will happen regardless and the fact that someone wants to reject that system, doesn't necessarily mean that they actually are saving the public purse anything at all.

The question isn't one of whether or not children deserve tax-payer funding to be educated, it's whether or not private schools deserve that funding, when you consider that we already provide tax-payer to educate children in the form of the public education system. Effectively what Ms Roberts is arguing for here is that the tax-payer pays for duplicate payments just because parents want to voluntarily reject the public education system.

"According to recent department figures, the average combined federal and state government funding per student in 2016 was $13,023 public school, $10,956 Catholic school and $9036 in the independent sector."

These figures are obtained by looking at the total budgets for education by federal and state governments and then dividing the aggregate amounts by the number of students who go to those schools.

When you ask for an analysis of that claim, you always get pointed back to the dollars per student facts as though they are the entirety of the answer. That completely ignores the base question though, because the fact that there is a public outlay at all, means that there is a drain on the public system. The question of actual savings can only really be answered with a comparison of the net costs if all of the students going to private schools were absorbed by the public system and providing an analysis of the change in the overall cost. Those sorts of analysis simply do not exist; largely because the private education system refuses to actually address the question.

If all of the students currently enrolled in the private school system were to be absorbed by the public system, then whilst I agree that the costs of the public system would go up, because the number of students in the system would also go up, then the rate per student changes. Basic high school maths tells you that when the denominator of a fraction gets bigger, then the result gets smaller. Since the figures presented here are a per student rate, and the public system is provided regardless of whether or not parents send their children there or choose to voluntarily reject the system, then those carrying costs are always on the books for the government. To claim that parents are saving taxpayers money, when in actual fact even one dollar of subsidy to the private system might be duplication, is dishonest. Nevertheless, this dishonest premise is the basis for the line of argument.

Let's run this back to the base assumption of economics:

"It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. Nobody but a beggar chooses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens."
 - Adam Smith², An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Book 1, Chapter 2 (1776)

I find it no coincidence at all that while the American Revolution was going on, that Smith was in Scotland penning his second work; which he meant to be read in conjunction with the first. Smith's work which appears in the grand tale of the enlightenment, and is really as much of a description of the human character as it is a description of economics (though he wouldn't have used the word I that sense). Smith of course didn't have the mathematical means to prosecute his argument but he knew more than enough about the motivations of meat bag humans to draw general conclusions about why they do things.

I find it impossible to believe that human nature has changed even an iota in the 243 years since Adam Smith's book went to the publishers. I do however take issue with his generous opinion that people are rational. Anecdote is not evidence but in my forty years upon this pale blue dot, suspended on a sunbeam,
I do not find a bunch of evidence to support the theory that people are rational. People are much more base than that: they are selfish; which is even affirmed by Ms Roberts' statement that "we get one chance to give our sons and daughters the best education we can source and afford."

"They constitute a sort of little nobility, who feel themselves interested to defend the property and to support the authority of their own little sovereign in order that he may be able to defend their property and to support their authority. Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all."
- Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Book 5, Chapter 1 (1776)

I find it interesting that Ms Roberts' comments don't really articulate anything beyond that claim of entitlement. Of course, being in a daily newspaper, that claim is being stated to a far wider audience than it would be if it was just being made in a private capacity on social media. Whilst I don't think that the print circulation of the Daily Telegraph is quite 1.1 million per day any more, I still bet that it is considerable. Merely making the claim though, in an increasingly incurious world, is enough to make people cheer for you; which I assume was one of the reasons for this piece. People who have an advantage, will often do what is necessary to retain that advantage; which includes in this case, propagandising in a daily newspaper.

What I find really irksome is one paragraph late in this piece:

"As a parent of children who attend schools in the private system, I am not fostering a life of privilege in them."

I would argue that that is exactly what Ms Roberts is doing by sending her children to private schools. Obviously, she thinks that there is an advantage in sending her children to private schools that is worth paying for and has done so. She then immediately states the case for her privilege by bragging about it:

"Plus I am not alone in Sydney by having friends who are wealthy enough that private school fees wouldn't even make a dent in their bank accounts."

Privilege by definition is a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most. In this case that benefit and advantage is subsidised by the majority, who will be excluded from it. As for the opening line that this is "misguided class warfare", I take exception to that because not only is the complaint correctly targeted against those who are enjoying a benefit and advantage at everyone's expense but if there is class warfare going on, then Ms Roberts is winning.

This is then mysteriously backed up by the following statement presented in evidence:

"They choose to send their children to school in the public system.
Should they be hung out to dry because their children are taking public places when they can afford to pay?

Firstly, that's a stupid paragraph and a stupid strawman because nobody is suggesting that in the first place. Secondly, it's gloriously myopic. Ms Roberts and people like her are actively voting to hang the people who choose to send their children to school in the public system out to dry by voting with their wallets.
I know that Ms Roberts isn't ashamed to send her kids to a private school. She has the means and will do so because she rationally sees the advantage in doing so. However, to then turn around and claim that private schools have a moral claim to public funding, is morally bankrupt. This isn't even about class warfare; it's about the justification of knavery.

¹Also the Herald-Sun and the Courier-Mail I am led to believe.
²Adam, Adam, Adam Smith
Listen what I charge you with!
Didn’t you say, In a class one day,
That selfishness was bound to pay?
Of all doctrines that was the Pith.
Wasn’t it, wasn’t it, wasn’t it, Smith?
‐ Stephen Leacock

No comments: