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Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Election and the Department of Education

With the upcoming election quickly approaching candidates around the United States are making a variety of promises. This election tea party favorites are promising to end the department of education. Among those voicing the anti-department of education view are U.S. Senate candidates Rand Paul and Ken Buck. The reason these candidates are seeking to de-fund the bureaucracy is to return the control over education to local authorities and parents. It makes sense that a local school organization would be more concerned with the actual education needs of a community due to the fact that people could hold them accountable easier. However, the tea party argument does not address who should fund education, which is essential to the debate.

The government’s only possible role in the economy, according to the efficiency criterion, is to act to correct market failures. However, neither party is addressing whether education presents a market failure or not. For education to be a market failure, a positive externality would need to occur because of education. Suggested positive externalities include increased productivity or knowledge on the part of employees as well as the benefit of having an informed electorate. The first suggested externality is unreasonable, because there is no third party affected by a non-market transaction. The employer pays the employee to produce goods, and people buy those goods through the market.

The view that educated people create a positive externality by forming a more knowledgeable electorate makes slightly more sense than the previous position. Literate people certainly have more opportunities to educate themselves about candidates and issues. However, as Mancur Olson presents in The Rise and Decline of Nations, even educated people have rational reasons to remain ignorant about elections. He calls this “rational ignorance” (26). People weigh the time it would take to become knowledgeable about the issues against the effect of their vote. The cost outweighs the benefit, so people choose to remain ignorant. This is the origin of the term rational ignorance. Therefore, even the informed electorate position fails to justify government support of education as a positive externality.

Perhaps other positive externalities exist that are not commonly mentioned. The two mentioned above are far from an exhaustive list. Whatever the case, the debate over education should center around who should pay for the education of the next generation. Even after the election it is unlikely that the education system will change. However, no change will be possible unless the core of the issue is discussed.


Olson, Mancur. The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation, and Social Rigidities. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982. Print.

Weber, Joseph. “Tea Party Hopefuls Target Education Department.” The Washington Times. 25 October 2010. Web.

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