Thursday, August 18, 2005

Academic egalitarianism

Jane Galt links to a Brian Caplan post accusing egalitarian academics of a grave inconsistency:
If you assign grades based on merit, and merit depends on performance unadjusted for opportunity, then why shouldn't the same principle hold for income and wealth? Just because you feel sorry for someone, why does that entitle them to a share of the riches of the more successful? And if you do not adjust for unequal opportunities when you grade, why should you adjust for unequal opportunities when you contemplate redistribution?
Now, I love busting on left-wing academics, and I guess I would like to be convinced by Caplan's point, but basic intellectual honesty forces me to admit that I'm not. There's a hundred differences between redistributing wealth and redistributing grades! Here are a few possibilities:

1) 'Merit-based' grades seem to be a lot more merit-based than 'merit-based' wealth. All the students these professors encounter in their classrooms have the basic tools necessary to succeed in the class (textbooks, etc) and must perform the same basic tasks in order to get an A. Nobody inherits an A; nobody randomly wins an A on an essay, as they might in a lottery; nobody is prevented from even working towards an A by something like hunger. Of course outside factors still matter quite a bit, but they surely don't matter as much as in the distribution of wealth.

2) Income and wealth are a lot more important to people's lives than grades. Getting a C is a lot less stressful than being unable to buy food or basic health care. Caplan thinks he has a counter for this:
You could say that money affects people's lives more than grades, but I beg to differ. The empirical evidence cuts the other way. Job satisfaction - which probably depends heavily on having the education and grades to open up the doors you want to walk through - matters a lot more for happiness than dollars of income. So if you really wanted to even out the ultimate inequality of life, you'd redistribute grades before money.
But that just takes us to...

3) Unlike with income, redistributing grades largely destroys their value! As Caplan himself acknowledges, "If employers, other schools, and parents knew that pity grading went on, it would make all grades less informative." So grades open up the doors you want to walk through now, but in the world of redistributed grades they wouldn't open jack.

The bottom line is that I don't think Caplan has discovered a "basic inconsistency" -- there seem to be perfectly reasonable ways of distinguishing between redistributing income and redistributing grades. I am a lot more receptive to Jane Galt's observation that the supposedly egalitarian academia is, ironically, "one of the most radically inegalitarian societies to be seen since Louis XVI fled Versailles". This is an important illustration of the principle that taking greed out of the equation (as academia has largely done -- most professors aren't in it for the dough) does not take status-consciousness, competitiveness and selfishness out of the equation. In fact, it often magnifies them.

9 Comments:

Blogger MM said...

I think you're wrong on several counts. First of all, in some objective sense, even merit is a matter of luck; you hit the Pick 6 in the parental lottery, giving you hte genetic and environmental legacy that made you hardworking, smart, etc. The fact that academic success is so unevenly distributed among the privileged indicates that there is more at work than merit.

Second of all, to an economist, wages, like college degrees, are a signal. They have value because they help society function efficiently. THe value of the wage/price signal is destroyed by redistribution, just as the value of the college education signal is destroyed by redistribution. They're not really very different.

4:41 AM  
Blogger LanceVance said...

I disagree on every point, but I think you get it particularly wrong on #3:

Equalizing grades would absolutely destroy their value, Everyone, especially Mr. Caplan himself, would agree.

However, when you say "Unlike with income", you are dead wrong. The *exact* same thing happens with income.

As you redistribute and equalize income, you reduce the rewards, incentives, and motivation for people and businesses to be more successful and productive.

On point #2: Income is a more basic necessity in today's society than academic achievement and prestige. However, once people have satisfied basic income needs, most people value prestige and rank more than income. To say one is more important than the other isn't really accurate.

7:16 AM  
Blogger A Typical Blogger said...

Interesting comments, let me respond.

It is true that the signaling function of income -- telling the person what to do -- would be destroyed through redistribution, just like giving poor people better grades might destroy their incentives to work hard. In that respect, the two are indeed similar. My point was that these liberal professors presumably want to help the poor students, but under a system of redistributing grades the poor students wouldn't be helped by their meaningless As. Meanwhile, in a system of income redistribution, poor people are helped by the additional income. That is a clear distinction.

As for grades being a result of luck, I never said that luck didn't affect grades, only that it seems to affect them less than income and wealth.

In general, I follow the Hayekian line that it is very ill-advised for conservatives and libertarians to base their defense of free markets on the notion that rich people deserve what they have; I do, however, think that students tend to deserve the grades that they get.

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