Sunday, November 25, 2007

Why big government does NOT work

A very interesting post at Overcoming Bias explains in yet another way why, as government gets bigger, it involves more and more people who don't share the goals of the citizens it supposedly serves or even the do-gooders who want to use government to impose their moral orthodoxy on everyone else.


But consider the No Child Left Behind Act.  The politicians want to look like they're doing something about educational difficulties; the politicians have to look busy to voters this year, not fifteen years later when the kids are looking for jobs.  The politicians are not the consumers of education.  The bureaucrats have to show progress, which means that they're only interested in progress that can be measured this year.  They aren't the ones who'll end up ignorant of science.  The publishers who commission textbooks, and the committees that purchase textbooks, don't sit in the classrooms bored out of their skulls.

The actual consumers of knowledge are the children - who can't pay, can't vote, can't sit on the committees.  Their parents care for them, but don't sit in the classes themselves; they can only hold politicians responsible according to surface images of "tough on education".  Politicians are too busy being re-elected to study all the data themselves; they have to rely on surface images of bureaucrats being busy and commissioning studies - it may not work to help any children, but it works to let politicians appear caring.  Bureaucrats don't expect to use textbooks themselves, so they don't care if the textbooks are hideous to read, so long as the process by which they are purchased looks good on the surface.  The textbook publishers have no motive to produce bad textbooks, but they know that the textbook purchasing committee will be comparing textbooks based on how many different subjects they cover, and that the fourth-grade purchasing committee isn't coordinated with the third-grade purchasing committee, so they cram as many subjects into one textbook as possible.  Teachers won't get through a fourth of the textbook before the end of the year, and then the next year's teacher will start over.  Teachers might complain, but they aren't the decision-makers, and ultimately, it's not their future on the line, which puts sharp bounds on how much effort they'll spend on unpaid altruism...

It's amazing, when you look at it that way - consider at all the lost information and lost incentives - that anything at all remains of the original purpose, the gain of knowledge.  Though many educational systems seem to be currently in the process of collapsing into a state not much better than nothing.

Want to see the problem really solved?  Make the politicians go to school.