In the last century a minority of great economists, led by Ludwig von Mises, clearly and forcefully pointed out the impossibility of calculation and planning under a socialist economy. History bore them out, and the Soviet Union collapsed under the crushing weight of its own absurdly uncoordinated production patterns. Absent a price system, planners grasped for anything they could measure in order to get the right mix of goods. They judged the success of the nail factory by the total weight of all the nails it produced, which naturally led to factories producing giant nails of no use to anyone. Then they switched to the number of nails produced, which led to tiny nails, equally useless. It may seem like a silly case of some rascally producers, but regardless of the intentions or skills of the workers or planners, how were they to know what type, size, quantity and quality of nail to make? They had no connection or effective communication channel to the consumer.
The insights about the impossibility of planning under total socialism apply equally to so-called “mixed” economies, except that whatever remnants of a market are in operation will stave off total collapse at least for a time, acting as a kind of safety valve. In other words, the same top-down disorder that resulted in a surplus of mustard and a shortage of bread can be expected in the “planned” segments of any economy.
Education is “mixed” in the US, but more top-down than market based in almost every case. There is almost no relationship between the end users of education – students and their parents – and the producers and planners in the system. It is no wonder the education system focuses on compliance, obedience, respect for authority, behaving exactly like other people your age, memorizing things whether or not they’re valuable, and a lot of other characteristics inimical to a free society and entrepreneurship, production, and innovation. They focus on these things because they can be measured absent a market. Something like student satisfaction is far more important, but only the nuanced, complex, adaptive market order can cater to such individualized, subjective vagaries. Top-down orders don’t know what to do with it so they endlessly tweak and argue over Common Core and other arbitrary outputs that can be measured.
Are teachers paid too much? Too little? Are facilities too big and costly? Too small and dated? Are class sizes too big or too small? Do students need more tech, or less? Longer school days and years, or shorter? More extra-curriculars or fewer? More or less homework? More STEM or more arts? No one knows, and no one ever can know absent a market.
Imagine markets for other goods and services if they were managed in this way. Does your local grocery store need more of fewer types of refried beans? Do you think a town hall meeting and a few bean board elections would come to a better solution than the market process? Does “society” need more trucks and fewer sedans? The absurdity of these questions ought to give pause before we enter ridiculous debates about whether schools or universities need more of this, or less of that. Good intentions and good people can’t make sense out of the chaos. Only markets can.
The more managed a system, the more it relies on what can be easily measured, and will therefore tend to produce those things rather than what is of value to consumers. If this goes on long enough, consumers may forget that they even have an opinion, or that they could even value things other than the low-quality product they’re given. If you’d never lived in a world with a flourishing, diverse market, you may not even know that you wanted low-sodium extra smooth refried beans, because you didn’t even know canned beans existed.
The solution in socialist countries was private property. Even at its peak, those who went outside the system and operated in black markets kept some semblance of quality of life possible. Once people were formally allowed to take ownership over their own lives and resources, markets and a functioning price system emerged and quickly began the ongoing coordination and creative destruction of a beautiful spontaneous order. Consumers were once again king, and their wants and needs (sometimes unknown until entrepreneurs offered it to them) were the ultimate driving force. Production patterns became flexible yet highly efficient at moving resources from lower value to higher value uses, as determined by the preferences of the end user, not some board or commission.
Unless private property (the ownership of ones own learning) in education reigns, educators will continue to grasp in the dark for what to produce. They’ll tend toward uniformity, authoritarianism, and clumsy, blunt approaches that lend themselves to easy measurement. Once consumers seize ownership of their own learning and seek products and services outside the grip of the state, the education market will reach full bloom and a cornucopia of methods and means will emerge. Until then, the question, “What should education look like?” is as unanswerable as, “What should an economy produce?”.