Non-Geographic School Districts

I've been having an interesting discussion at the Agitator's blog on the topic of government involvement in schooling. Many people take the "strong federalism" position on various issues, believing Federal government involvement to be the cause of various government shortcomings and believing more dispersed control to be the solution. While I agree that lack of Federal government involvement in most things is a net political positive, resulting in a greater variety of choices at the local level, I think that most problems arise from the very nature of non-voluntary exchanges, which are present at any government level.

A commenter, who agrees with me that Federal government oversight of education is destructive, nevertheless believes that state/local government oversight is necessary and beneficial. A snippet of his comment is below, and my answer follows.

What's the problem? It's an individuals choice to live where they do. Frank Town or Wilde City, no one is forcing anyone to live where they don't want to.

To a degree, I agree. That is why I support federalism politically.

However, I have problems with Frank Town both ethically and consequentially.

Ethically, my argument is as follows. Why should I have to move in order to decide where I spend my own money? I don't want anyone taking my money without my permission for building schools that I don't approve of and that my kids won't use. If a bunch of my neighbors gather together and pool their money to build a school that their kids attend, I have no problem with that. But when they point a gun to my head to make me pay for their desires, that's immoral. They don't have my consent.

Would you make the same argument for, say, torture? "In Frank Town, the majority can torture the others. In Wilde City, torture is not to be found anywhere. If those receving the torture want to not undergo torture, they can move out of Frank Town."

And remember that moving has significant costs. A family has to pack all of their belonging, find new jobs for the parents, move their belongings, perhaps hire movers, leave their friends and loved ones behind, uproot their children, become accustomed to their new locality, and adapt to the new local culture.

Consequentially, my argument is as follows. Market exchanges act to coordinate resources to their highest valued ends. When I buy a Dell computer with my money, Dell makes that much more profit, and Compaq loses that much potential profit. Thus, both Dell and Compaq are affected by my purchase - Dell positively, and Compaq negatively. Dell has more money to work with. Compaq has to improve their product to satisfy me enough that I buy from them the next time. Multiply that my millions of customers and you get a robust market that allocates scarce resources to their highest valued uses. Those who make products that satisfy others succeed and those that do not fail.

When money is exchanged by force and not voluntarily, these coordination mechanisms are no longer present. When the local school gets my money without my permission, it rewards the local school, even though I do not approve of that school. At the same time, entrepreneurs who might otherwise be able to profit from my money by making a school that I voluntarily choose to pay for, rather than being rewarded, are punished. They miss out on the profits they could make because those dollars are given automatically without my permission to the school that does not satisfy me. In other words, the particular product that does not satisfy me is rewarded and the particular product that does satisfy me is punished - the exact opposite of the free market. Multiply this by tens (hundreds?) of thousands within a locality, and the result is that poorly functioning schools become successful, and potentially great schools lose out.

So, both ethically and consequentially, I have problems with the concept of local govts controlling schools.

Let me turn the question around for you. Suppose we define a "school district" not geographically, but rather through preferences. Instead of calling a "school district" those residents within a geographic territory, why not call a "school district" those residents who choose to voluntarily pay for patronage to a particular school?

That way, even if we were neighbors, we could be in different school districts. You could be in school district "Thomas Jefferson" and I could be in school district "Ludwig von Mises". We could both be satisfied with our chosen product with our freely given consent without resulting in any significant distortions in the market, and neither one of us would have to take part in costly geographic moves.

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