The Deleted Clause of the Declaration of Independence

As a tribute to the great events that occurred 241 years ago, I wanted to recognize the importance of the unity of purpose behind supporting liberty in all of its forms. While an unequivocal statement of natural rights and the virtues of liberty, the Declaration of Independence also came close to bringing another vital aspect of liberty to the forefront of public attention. As has been addressed in multiple fascinating podcasts (Joe Janes, Robert Olwell), a censure of slavery and George III’s connection to the slave trade was in the first draft of the Declaration.

Thomas Jefferson, a man who has been criticized as a man of inherent contradiction between his high morals and his active participation in slavery, was a major contributor to the popularizing of classical liberal principles. Many have pointed to his hypocrisy in that he owned over 180 slaves, fathered children on them, and did not free them in his will (because of his debts). Even given his personal slaves, Jefferson made his moral stance on slavery quite clear through his famous efforts toward ending the transatlantic slave trade, which exemplify early steps in securing the abolition of the repugnant act of chattel slavery in America and applying classically liberal principles toward all humans. However, this very practice may have been enacted far sooner, avoiding decades of appalling misery and its long-reaching effects, if his (hypocritical but principled) position had been adopted from the day of the USA’s first taste of political freedom.

This is the text of the deleted Declaration of Independence clause:

“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.  This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain.  Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce.  And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another..”

The second Continental Congress, based on hardline votes of South Carolina and the desire to avoid alienating potential sympathizers in England, slaveholding patriots, and the harbor cities of the North that were complicit in the slave trade, dropped this vital statement of principle

The removal of the anti-slavery clause of the declaration was not the only time Jefferson’s efforts might have led to the premature end of the “peculiar institution.” Economist and cultural historian Thomas Sowell notes that Jefferson’s 1784 anti-slavery bill, which had the votes to pass but did not because of a single ill legislator’s absence from the floor, would have ended the expansion of slavery to any newly admitted states to the Union years before the Constitution’s infamous three-fifths compromise. One wonders if America would have seen a secessionist movement or Civil War, and how the economies of states from Alabama and Florida to Texas would have developed without slave labor, which in some states and counties constituted the majority.

These ideas form a core moral principle for most Americans today, but they are not hypothetical or irrelevant to modern debates about liberty. Though America and the broader Western World have brought the slavery debate to an end, the larger world has not; though countries have officially made enslavement a crime (true only since 2007), many within the highest levels of government aid and abet the practice. 30 million individuals around the world suffer under the same types of chattel slavery seen millennia ago, including in nominal US allies in the Middle East. The debates between the pursuit of non-intervention as a form of freedom and the defense of the liberty of others as a form of freedom have been consistently important since the 1800’s (or arguably earlier), and I think it is vital that these discussions continue in the public forum. I hope that this 4th of July reminds us that liberty is not just a distant concept, but a set of values that requires constant support, intellectual nurturing, and pursuit.

The Old Deluder Satan Act: Literacy, Religion, and Prosperity

So, my brother (Keith Kallmes, graduate of the University of Minnesota in economics and history) and I have decided to start podcasting some of our ideas. The topics we hope to discuss range from ancient coinage to modern medical ethics, but with a general background of economic history. I have posted here our first episode, the Old Deluder Satan Act. This early American legislation, passed by the Massachusetts Bay Colonists, displays some of the key values that we posit as causes of New England’s principal role in the Industrial Revolution. The episode: 

We hope you enjoy this 20-minute discussion of the history of literacy, religion, and prosperity, and we are also happy to get feedback, episode suggestions, and further discussion in the comments below. Lastly, we have included links to some of the sources cited in the podcast.


Sources:

The Legacy of Literacy: Continuity and Contradictions in Western Culture, by Harvey Graff

Roman literacy evidence based on inscriptions discussed by Dennis Kehoe and Benjamin Kelly

Mark Koyama’s argument

European literacy rates

The Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution: England, 1500-1912, by Gregory Clark

Abstract of Becker and Woessman’s “Was Weber Wrong?”

New England literacy rates

(Also worth a quick look: the history of English Protestantism, the Puritans, the Green Revolution, and Weber’s influence, as well as an alternative argument for the cause of increased literacy)

Know your data, show your data: A rant

I am finishing up my first year of doctoral level political science studies. During that time I have read a lot of articles – approximately 550. 11 courses. 5 articles a week on average. 10 weeks. 11×5×10=550. Two things have bothered me immensely when reading these pieces: (1) it’s unclear authors know their data well, regardless of it being original or secondary data and (2) the reader is rarely showed much about the data.

I take the stance that when you use a dataset you should know it well in and out. I do not just mean that you should just have an idea if its normally distributed or has outliers. I expect you to know who collected it. I expect you to know its limitations.

For example I have read public opinion data that sampled minority populations. Given that said populations are minorities they had to oversample in areas where said groups are over represented. The problem with this is that those who live near co-ethnics are different from those who live elsewhere. This restricts the external validity of results derived from the data, but I rarely see an acknowledgement of this.

Sometimes data is flawed but it’s the best we have. That’s fine. I’m not against using flawed data. I’m willing to buy most arguments if the underlying theory is well grounded. To be honest I view statistical work to be fluff most times. If I don’t really care about the statistics, why do I care if the authors know their data well? I do because it serves as a way for authors to signal that they thought about their work. It’s similar to why artists sometimes place a “bowl of only green m&ms” requirement on their performance contracts. Artists don’t know if their contracts were read, but if their candy bowl is filled with red twizzlers they know something is wrong. I can’t monitor whether the authors took care in their manuscripts, but NOT seeing the bowl of green only m&ms gives me a heads up that something is off.

Of those 500+ articles I have read only a handful had a devoted descriptive statistics section. The logic seems to be that editors are encouraging that stuff be placed in appendices to make articles more readable. I don’t buy that argument for descriptive statistics. Moving robustness checks or replications to the appendices is fine, but descriptive stats give me a chance to actually look at the data and feel less concerned that the results are driven by outliers. In my 2nd best world all dependent variables and major independent variables would be graphed. If the data was collected in differing geographies I would want the data mapped. In my 1st best world replication files with the full dataset and dofiles would be mandatory for all papers.

I don’t think I am asking too much here. Hell, I am not even fond of empirical work. My favorite academic is Peter Leeson (GMU Econ & Law) and he rarely (ever?) does empirical work. As long as empirical work is being done in the social sciences though I expect a certain standard. Otherwise all we’re doing is engaging in math masturbation.

Tldr; I don’t trust most empirical work out there. I’ll rant about excessive literature reviews next time.

Speech in academic philosophy: Rebecca Tuvel on Rachel Dolezal

A few days ago, controversy exploded in the world of academic philosophy as a new article, published in the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia, earned itself a letter calling for retraction by over eight hundred scholars on the basis that its availability “causes harm.”

Rebecca Tuvel’s article, “In Defense of Transracialism,” argues that the same sort of theoretical support used to justify transgender persons entails, logically, support of the transracial individuals. Tuvel details the claims of Rachel Dolezal, who made major news last year, as a woman “presenting as a black woman for some years [though] her parents are in fact white” (Tuvel, 263). She posits sensible criteria that seem essential to a “successful identity transformation”: self-identification and the willingness of society to accept an identification. Then, she covers literature from biology, neuroscience, and critical race and feminist theory, to ultimately present the idea that, potentially, a concept of racial identity could turn on those criteria rather than notions like ancestry due to exclusionary concerns, a “normativity problem” (274).

The paper is about what our acceptance entails. Although it is entirely about furthering tolerance, the treatment of Tuvel online has been egregious. Some of it can be found on Twitter. One of the more extreme takes, by Nora Berenstain (archived here), outright accuses Tuvel of violence. In a response, Tuvel says she has received hate mail, but that few online have actually dealt with the questions of her article. Brian Leiter even offered to set up a fundraising endeavor if Tuvel decides to seek legal reparation for the defamation circulating online, as it could causes issues with her professorship. Hypatireleased a statement apologizing for the article, saying now they understand it was “unacceptable.”

Why was the feminist philosophy community so upset?

Daily Nous, a philosophy blog, has outlined the reasons the writers of the open letter gave for retracting Tuvel’s essay, and the shortcomings and incoherence of those reasons. Upon reading her essay, one finds that Tuvel is empathetic to trans causes, is entrenched in critical and queer literature, and genuinely only wants to explore some philosophical issues raised by Dolezal’s claims. Some of her offenses, according to Berenstain and the open letter, were deadnaming (using a transgender person’s previous name), using terminology like “transgenderism,” discussing biological sex, and not citing sources by black authors.

These particular misdeeds ran the gamut on social media. The open letter accused Tuvel of some academic concerns like mischaracterization and unpopular vocabulary. Critics on Twitter were more concerned with focusing on Tuvel as a “cishetero white wom[an refusing] to listen to cis black women and trans folks,” committing “cis white bullshit.” Noah Berlatsky wrote a shallow criticism that spends most of its time discussing how the article will be used against transpeople, and the other large bulk on Tuvel’s ignorance of history — as if history is somehow relevant to the logical consequences of a few philosophical commitments. He, again, fails to engage with it academically. It’s true that Tuvel could have incorporated more work on trans history; it’s also true that it in no way effects her basic argument.

Some responses revealed the ideological reasons for opposing Tuvel’s research. Dianna E. Anderson writes, “my problem as a philosophy undergrad… [was that] philosophy seems to separate itself out into a moral vacuum where every question is ‘just asking’ … there has to be a moral framework guiding which questions you’re asking and why … that’s why I grounded my higher education in Women’s Studies, where moral parameters are drawn around questions.” Incidentally, this is one of the two reasons the Church censored Galileo: first, it thought Galileo to be factually inaccurate; second, it had a boundary — theology of the Bible — past which speculation could not take place; cosmological and astronomical theorizing were not to transgress this line. Anderson commits herself to Women’s Studies as a place where stifling zones are set up; dogmas that may not be passed. (Funny enough, the first reason the Church employed censorship has not been picked up by Tuvel’s opposition.)

The non-scholarly attacks on Tuvel don’t hold water, which a short turn to the essay reveals. Daily Nous covered most of those points, and Jesse Singal at NY Mag addressed, again, the extent to which the criticisms avoided a critical look at the actual arguments contained within. Tuvel is not a transmisogynist. For some people outside of feminist academic philosophy, she would probably even seem like a caricature of an “ultra-leftist.” The attacks on her are antithetical to academic humility: among them ad hominems, appeals to authority, slippery slopes and strawmen. The academic environment necessary for such an unscholarly attack on a philosopher for not being aligned enough with the contemporary orthodoxy — and that is all it seems to boil down to — is very unnerving to those acquainted with the historical censorship of ideas. Adding to this, Hypatia is named for Hypatia of Alexandria — a female Greek philosopher murdered for inciting controversy. The irony seems to be lost on everyone.

The reasons given in the open letter to retract the article seem to merit, at most, a slight semantic revision. The scholars, among them Judith Butler, instead want a full apology and censorship. So then, what remains is to ask about the environment of philosophy that enabled this. Hypatia identifies itself as a “forum for cutting-edge work in feminist philosophy” … it also states that “feminist philosophy arises out of diverse traditions and methods within philosophy,” and commits to engage and uplift diversity within the field. Diversity in a continental philosophy journal might mean pluralistic methodology, e.g., hermeneutics, phenomenology, deconstrucion, dialectics, etc. Here, instead, the emphasis is on diversity of identity, which is seen as the foundation of “lived experience” (per the apology), which, it is conferred, provides access to enriched understanding.

Viewpoints from identities outside the mean are given an authority justified by conditions of their birth, rather than the authority of sound argumentation. What is important is some sort of status possessed. There’s an analogue available from another field in humanities: F. A. Hayek was opposed to the Nobel Prize in economics on the argument that no economist should be given so much power: the award “confers on an individual an authority which in economics no man ought to possess… the influence of an economist that mainly matters is an influence over laymen: politicians, journalists, civil servants and the public generally.” In essence, the argument becomes lost; the audience awards merit and attention based on something other than good reasons. In the case of Hypatia‘s readership, the audience seems to award attention based on identity.

It is, however, truly naïve to think the history of philosophy is the prevailing of logic over fallacy; that schools become popular because of their intrinsic validity, that logos always triumphs over our other baser means of evaluation. All sorts of humanistic factors, like creativity, freshness, propaganda, aesthetic appeal and explanatory power serve to elevate certain philosophies or cosmologies over others. This multiplicity of influences, however, doesn’t mean that reason as a guiding principle should be explicitly subsumed under the authority of influences like pathos or ethos, or skin color.

“In Defense of Transracialism” used argument to attempt to unravel some ongoing mysteries about gender and race. Tuvel approached the question of transracialism from a commitment to other philosophical commitments about gender and sexual identification. It was a question about what follows from our beliefs. Per Plato, philosophy begins in wonder: the critical endeavor to evaluate even our most cherished opinions, explore the incomprehensible world, and examine what incongruities appear in our web of belief.

Because of this, her essay was decisively feminist, in that it examined natural consequences of feminist theory while retaining some basic tenets (like the validity of transpeople, and, maybe, racial social constructivism). Combined with her level of analysis, there’s no question that it could only belong to a feminist philosophy journal. And it does belong.

Her article was criticized not for failing to reach sufficient level of rigor in analysis, but for insensitivity in dealing with touchy subjects. Imagine if Frank Jackson had never published his thought experiment on Mary’s Room, about the experience of the color red, for fear of offending the colorblind. Or if Descartes never released his Meditations, for fear the wax example would offend vegans that don’t eat honey.

In fact, returning to the 17th century, the Tuvel situation is reminiscent of Descartes’ reluctance to publish on the heliocentric universe, after the Inquisition’s treatment of Galileo a few years earlier. When professors in the academic philosophy community, like Nora Berenstain, condemn Rebecca Tuvel for “discursive violence” for publishing an article, and call for retraction rather than debate, it aligns Tuvel with Hypatia of Alexandria, Boethius, von Hochheim, Galileo, Łyszczyński and others as victims of orthodoxical demands for acculturation and censorship in their honest pursuit of advancing understanding.

Berenstain would have been better to react as Tolosani did against Copernicus, attempting to use philosophy and scientific data to dismantle the latter’s controversial viewpoints. Instead, Tuvel’s apparent lack of citations for black or trans authors (though there are plenty of nonwhite philosophers — Quayshawn Spencer, Charles Mills, Meena Krishnamurthy, Esa Diaz-Leon (detailed here) — who have entertained the idea that Dolezal could be transracial) was like a crime to a community not concerned with analysis, as analytic philosophy is supposed to be, but a bizarre appeal toward identitarian ethos. Tuvel says “Calls for intellectual engagement are also being shut down because they ‘dignify’ the article.”

By acquiescing to the complaint, Hypatia has allowed for the possibility of a “chilling effect” on speech in academia: authors may self-censor to fit orthodoxy or risk the hate mail and potential threats to tenure Rebecca Tuvel now faces. This is disastrous for the institution of knowledge and a culture that used to be centered around expression. In the words of Greg Lukianoff, free speech is a cultural value, not just something on the Bill of Rights. “Free speech is the antithesis of violence”: it was created, as an innovation, so that we wouldn’t need the threat of force to settle issues.

Tuvel’s conclusion — “that society should accept such an individual’s decision to change race the same way it should accept an individual’s decision to change sex” (275) — is not violent, nor are her premises or methodology. Censorship in philosophy mirrors censorship on campuses: much like protestors disrupted Charles Murray without engaging with his research (and possibly completely misunderstanding it), philosophers chastised Tuvel for minor semantic offenses or lack of adherence to certain trends; each offender expressed heterodoxy where only homogeneity was desired.

The path of philosophy, from Plato to Putnam, has always been controversial. Race and gender, multicultural studies professors always declare, are exceedingly difficult to talk about: therefore, they are perfect fodder for philosophical exploration. To deal with these concepts, one does not have to be black, white, male, female, cis, trans or non-binary — one must only desire honest discovery, and proceed with argument in a way that is open to debate. The last established orthodoxy in philosophy was Stalin’s enforcement of dialectical materialism in the Soviet Union, when laws of statistics, Einstein’s theories of relativity, evolutionary biology and non-Pavlovian psychology were dismissed as pseudoscience. In a free society, the best way to deal with unfamiliar opinions is to debate them, not to call for censorship.

There are only two ways an argument can be wrong: the premises are false, or the conclusion does not follow. The attacks on Tuvel showed an unwillingness to examine either. Without willingness to argue, philosophy — and clarification on these important, mysterious issues — will suffer.

Where is the line between sympathy and paternalism?

In higher-ed news two types of terrifying stories come up pretty frequently: free speech stories, and Title IX stories. You’d think these stories would only be relevant to academics and students, but they’re not. These issues are certainly very important for those of us who hang out in ivory towers. But those towers shape the debate–and unquestioned assumptions–that determine real world policy in board rooms and capitols. This is especially true in a world where a bachelor’s degree is the new GED.

The free speech stories have gotten boring because they all take the following form: group A doesn’t want to let group B talk about opinion b so they act like a bunch of jackasses. Usually this takes place at a school for rich kids. Usually those kids are majoring in something that will give them no marketable skills.

The Title IX stories are Kafkaesque tales where a well-intentioned policy (create a system to protect people in colleges from sexism and sexual aggression) turns into a kangaroo court that allows terrible people to ruin other people’s lives. (I hasten to add, I’m sure Title IX offices do plenty of legitimately great work.)

A great article in the Chronicle gives an inside look at one of these tribunals. For the most part it’s chilling. Peter Ludlow had been accused of sexual assault, but the claims weren’t terribly credible. As far as I can tell (based only on this article) he did some things that should raise some eyebrows, but nothing genuinely against any rules. Nonetheless, the accusations were a potential PR and liability problem for the school so he had to go, regardless of justice.

The glimmer of hope comes with the testimony of Jessica Wilson. She managed to shake them out of their foregone conclusion and got them to consider that women above the age of consent can be active participants in their own lives instead of victims waiting to happen. Yes, bad things happen to women, but that’s not enough to jump to the conclusion that all women are victims and all men are aggressors.

The big question at the root of these types of stories is how much responsibility we ought to take for our lives.

Free speech: Should I be held responsible for saying insensitive (or unpatriotic) things? Who would enforce that obligations? Should I be held responsible for dealing with the insensitive things other people might say? Or should I even be allowed to hear what other people might say because I can’t take responsibility for evaluating it “critically” and coming to the right conclusion.

Title IX: Should women be responsible for their own protection, or is that akin to blaming the victim? We’ve gone from trying to create an environment where everyone can contribute to taking away agency. In doing so we’ve also created a powerful mechanism that can be abused. This is bad because of the harm it does to the falsely accused, but it also has the potential to delegitimize the claims of genuine victims and fractures society. But our forebears weren’t exactly saints when it came to treating each other justly.

Where is the line between helping a group and infantilizing them?

At either end of a spectrum I imagine caricature versions of a teenage libertarian (“your problems are your own, suck it up while I shout dumb things at you”) and a social justice warrior (“it’s everyone else’s fault! Let’s occupy!”). Let’s call those end points Atomistic Responsibility and Social Responsibility. More sarcastically, we could call them Robot and Common Pool Responsibility. Nobody is actually at these extreme ends (I hope), but some people get close.

Either one seems ridiculous to anyone who doesn’t already subscribe to that view, but both have a kernel of truth. Fair or not, you have to take responsibility for your life. But we’re all indelibly shaped by our environment.

Schools have historically adopted a policy towards the atomistic end, but have been trending in the other direction. I don’t think this is universally bad, but I think those values cannot properly coexist within a single organization.

We can imagine some hypothetical proper point on the Responsibility Spectrum, but without a way to objectively measure virtue, the position of that point–the line between sympathy and paternalism–its location is an open question. We need debate to better position and re-position that line. I would argue that Western societies have been doing a pretty good job of moving that line in the right direction over the last 100 years (although I disagree with many of the ways our predecessors have chosen to enforce that line).

But here’s the thing: we can’t move in the right direction without getting real-time feedback from our environments. Without variation in the data, we can’t draw any conclusions. What we need more than a proper split of responsibility, is a range of possibilities being constantly tinkered with and explored.

We need a diversity of approaches. This is why freedom of speech and freedom of association are so essential. In order to get this diversity, we need federalism and polycentricity–stop trying to impose order from the top down on a grand scale (“think globally, act locally“), and let order be created from the bottom up. Let our organizations–businesses, churches, civic associations, local governments and special districts–adapt to their circumstances and the wishes of their stakeholders.

Benefiting from this diversity requires open minds and epistemic humility. We stand on the shore of a vast mysterious ocean. We’ve waded a short distance into the water and learned a lot, but there’s infinitely more to learn!

(Sidenote: Looking for that Carl Sagan quote I came across this gem:

People are not stupid. They believe things for reasons. The last way for skeptics to get the attention of bright, curious, intelligent people is to belittle or condescend or to show arrogance toward their beliefs.

That about sums up my approach to discussing these sorts of issues. We’d all do better to occasionally give our opponents the benefit of the doubt and see what we can learn from them. Being a purist is a great way to structure your thought, but empathy for our opponents is how we make our theories strong.

The Roots of Truth and the Roots of Knowledge

John Oliver raises a Hayekian point on the roots of knowledge:

Just because they believed you and you believed them, doesn’t make it true! This isn’t like Peter Pan where believing in fairies will keep Tinker Bell alive. This isn’t a magic thing Peter, she has Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

He’s rightly picking on Donald Trump, who has a) been a particularly bad epistemologist, and b) should be held to a higher standard because he’s the president.

But the truth is that we’re all in the same boat: we believe what we hear from what we believe are reputable sources (because we heard those sources were reputable from sources we believed to be reputable). Most of our knowledge we take on faith from other people. In essence, we can’t simply know the truth in a vacuum; we depend on the context created by our culture, language, and personal experience. It’s only by trusting others that we can stand on the shoulders of giants.

What’s so special about science is that the standards are higher than in other domains. Knowledge has been carefully curated over generations by fallable humans engaged in a particular subculture of society. To the extent science makes good predictions, it creates value in society, and to the extent it can verify and capture that value, its practitioners get funding and get taken (mostly) seriously by the educated public.

You might notice that there are many places where science can go wrong. And the history of science is replete with blind alleys and shameful episodes. But also glorious advances in our knowledge, capability, and humanity. The same is true of all areas of life that deal with knowledge from politics and journalism to how you clean your kitchen. To the extent we see both competition and cooperation (in a variety of institutional forms) we will tend to see knowledge and truth converge. (I think.)

In this respect, we’re all, essentially, in the same boat. We should expect fallability and adopt a humble attitude. As surely as I want to believe John Oliver’s portrayal of current events (most of the time), I’m not about to fly to DC to check things out for myself.

Because, this isn’t about belief, it can’t be… Faith and Fact aren’t like Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton. When you confuse them it actually matters. Real people get hurt when you make policy based on false information.

We face trade offs when it comes to knowledge. Received wisdom might be correct enough to operate a bed and breakfast. But we’ve created real fragility in our political system by vesting so much power in the White House. It means that the standard of truth has to be so high that not even a crazed billionaire hell-bent on becoming president (a segment of society usually celebrated for their levelheadedness!) can be trusted to pursue.

Let me sum up:

  1. Our knowledge is always based on the trust we place in others. As such we can be more or less certain about any thing we might know. I am very certain (0.99×10^-100) that gravity exists and keeps me rooted to the earth, but less certain (0.05) that I am organizing my bookshelves correctly.
  2. We can, and do, have different standards of truth in different areas of our lives. I don’t make any important decisions that don’t account for the severity of gravity. But I’m not going to sweat it if I put a new book on an inappropriate shelf.
  3. We absolutely need to hold our government to very high standards. Nuclear weapons are scary, but lesser powers also call for very high standards. The level of certainty I’d insist on for nukes is at least an order of magnitude higher than the level for regulating pollution. But the level of certainty for the latter is orders of magnitude higher than might be possible under alternative arrangements.
  4. At the same time, we have to accept our own fallability, particularly when it comes to our ability to accurately know the truth. But that’s no reason to be nihilistic; it should inspire a striving for constant improvement in general (while making the appropriate trade offs on the margin).

How school choice can benefit teachers

Betsy DeVos was narrowly confirmed as US Education Secretary this week. Of all Trump’s nominees, she seems to have attracted the most rancor, which is a shame considering Trump’s pick for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is an outspoken supporter of the US’s brutally racist drug war. Concerns with DeVos’s background and experience are very well-founded. Concerns with her support for school choice, however, are not.

Others, including Nick Gillespie, have already covered the important student-centric case for school choice, pointing out in particular how greater choice benefits minority students and students from disadvantaged backgrounds. I will focus instead on the benefits to teachers as I see them based on my research in school choice systems in the United Kingdom and Sweden.

A great deal of opposition to school choice is based on the perception that it is necessarily an attack on the teaching profession (it is certainly the way teaching unions portray it). Indeed, it is too easy for generically anti-state advocates of school choice to fall into the assumption that there is a pitched conflict between the supposed special interests of publicly-funded teachers and the interests of students. On this narrow account, the purpose of school choice is to compel teachers to work harder, for longer, in order to produce better results for their students.

The reality is that teachers and students share a lot of common interests, namely having a safe, productive and enjoyable working environment. The broader case for school choice is that a competitive framework allows for these environments to emerge more readily than with a monopoly public provider. This does not necessarily mean importing a ‘competitive ethos’ inside the school gates. If anything, it is school administrators, or proprietors in the case of private schools, that need to be exposed to competition, not the teachers themselves.

How do teachers benefit from school choice in practice? First, schools exposed to competition are encouraged to devote more money to teachers’ salaries (for teachers both in public and private schools). Arguably, this is because retention of quality teachers is more important than more visible expenditure that are often more attractive to policymakers. These include new buildings and electronic classroom aids that officials think can give the public the impression of long-term ‘investment’ in a way that simply paying teachers more does not, even if that is, in fact, what works best.

Second, such schools can allocate training resources more effectively to teachers. I found in Sweden, which has an extensive school choice system, that one private network of schools had developed and provided their own continuing professional development curriculum rather than outsourcing it to consultants.

Third, multiple competing providers combined with the possibility of establishing new schools give more career options for teachers. Conversely, a public monopoly can easily succumb to group-think. This ends up excluding good teachers who happen to disagree with the prevailing orthodoxy. The career trajectory of British teacher, Katharine Birbalsingh, is a useful illustration. She was a successful state-school teacher who made the mistake of appearing at a Conservative Party conference in order to advocate for a more traditional pedagogy and to discuss problems of discipline in the school system. She was suspended from teaching as a result and essentially forced to resign her position.

Under a purely public school system, an outspoken teacher who disagrees with the way the majority of schools are run might be frozen out from further employment indefinitely. They would have to move to the fee-paying private sector instead in order to continue teaching at all. In the United Kingdom, however, we now have array of state-funded but independent schools called free schools. This allowed Birbalsingh to open a new school, the Michaela Community School, which so far appears to be enjoying some success. It is also an attractive employer for other teachers seeking an environment that supports greater discipline in the classroom. Thus she was able to continue contributing to public education. In this sense, a diverse range of schools, based on different pedagogical principles, does not only benefit students who can find a school that better matches their needs. It also gives teachers a wider range of environments in which to work.