A few days ago over at his ANOVA Blog, Freddie deBoer published a piece about the way we subsidize university education in the United States. Freddie’s thesis revolved around the idea that we spend a disproportionate amount of money allowing Harvard and its peers avoid taxes compared to the amount we spend on public university systems. Personally, I would argue that Connecticut State and Harvard enjoy the same proportional level of government support given that both are granted the same tax free status (and Connecticut arguably more support as it gets an actual subsidy), but that’s really beside the point. A necessary component of Freddie’s argument is an assumption of revulsion at the idea that the government doesn’t tax wealth enough to redistribute toward services for the working class. Fair enough. There’s nothing I can change about another’s moral intuition. I can only attack the logic, not the axiomatic foundation, and here the logic is fine. However, you don’t write a blog to agree to disagree, and what struck me about the article (and why I’m pointing it out) was not necessarily the argument itself, but an assumption tucked away in the middle:
What political philosophy, exactly, could possibly justify this condition? What ideology would conclude that this is a good use of resources, either public or philanthropic?
Well, here I am subscribing to a political philosophy that could justify this condition. A political philosophy so morally repugnant that it can’t even be imagined, apparently. I guess I should try to explain.
Reading the rhetorical question I was reminded me of a hypothetical question that had come up a few months ago in conversation with a friend. She was discussing a situation from her high school days wherein a certain amount of money had been made available to the administration. The principal had suggested it be used to provided tutor support to poor AP students who needed additional help, this use struck her as a terrible waste. She felt the money shouldn’t be used to help AP scholars, but instead to provide support for students in danger of dropping out. I disagreed. Both cases involved redistribution, but the question was about which group was more deserving. I found this an interesting test of moral intuition, and posed it to a few more friends. You only have enough money to help one set of kids – do you help the most talented or the least talented poor kids? To me, my solution was obvious, and I cannot think of any image more representative of what I believe to be American values than that of the Land of Opportunity. I imagine it as a place where anyone can succeed if they’re talented, no matter how humble their origin. Now, I don’t necessarily think this is the case in the real America, but I’d certainly like it to be so, and I want to work towards this ideal of America. Of course, this is merely my opinion, but I doubt I’m alone here. The Ivy League is not without its faults, and Freddie is completely accurate when he points out that most of Yale’s incoming class is composed of loathsome rich kids. But there is also no small number of students of disadvantaged background who have made it in on raw talent, and are poised to take advantage of an unparalleled opportunity. Funding this seems to me like a good use of money.
This is of course the current year, and since the discourse is dominated by a bunch of filthy neoliberals addicted to consequentialist ethics, about half the time I ask the above question, it doesn’t cut to the quick of axiology. I just get a blank stare and a half-assed attempt at reasoning out the utilitarian reason for focusing on one group or the other. We’re quickly dragged into a discussion of where the most “social good” can be produced, and thus I must not spare you from this fate. I contend that even limiting myself to such a base moral argument, I still believe keeping the taxman away from our Harvards pays out in social “good” much more than the dollars we grant to our Cal State Fullertons. Graduates of the Ivy League et al are disproportionately represented among company founders, doctors, and academic researchers. The combined force of these professions contribute huge sums to our national product and well being. To drive the point home, let’s just take a quick look at the list of Nobel Laureates by school. Focusing on even the prizes awarded in medicine, these schools produce inventions and developments that improve our lives in immeasurable ways. There are people alive today who would be dead without them. Vast numbers of them. The reason we’re all so much richer and that the world is a better place to live in today than it was before is because of inventions like these – produced by our best universities, and by the alumni of our best universities. Knocking a few ticks off our Gini coefficient by handing dollars to Connecticut State might be a noble undertaking, but it seems like if I were a dictator seeking to maximize our collective well-being, I would likely send more resources to Harvard, not fewer.
Of course, the previous point assumes a few things about the distribution of ability within our society, and especially the value-add that these schools provide. An astute reader might point out that Harvard may not be a necessary condition for these inventions at all, and that they would be created anyway were Harvard to cease to be. I don’t know if this is the case, and have no way of knowing. But even if it were, there still seems to be some value added by using Harvard as a selection mechanism to draw these talented individuals out of the general population. It would of course be useful to attempt to measure what exactly Harvard manages to do (in order to see if it could be replicated more cheaply), but I wouldn’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg unless I’m fairly certain my alchemy is up to the task of substitution. As to my other point, I won’t say I’m absolutely sure that I know what the distribution of talent is either. My guess is that it’s somewhat normal, however, and the main question is how fat the tails are. If they’re thin, then indeed we would probably be better served in Freddie’s world, trying our best trying to push up the median level of social production by some small amount. But if they’re fat – and I believe we have many reasons to think that’s the case – then taking a shot at seeing how much value these talented few can create is our best bet. I don’t mean to discredit the effort and vast amount of value produced by the masses over the years, but the amount of wealth and prosperity created by say, the steam engine, dwarfs the compounded work of millions. We all have our role to play in society, but it would be foolish of us to deny ourselves the potential wonders of the future that we could obtain by investing in our best and brightest. Let Harvard keep its money.