Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Can Government Correct a Mistake?

Over a century ago, at the dawn of the "common school" era, someone decided to stop teaching reading using phonics and to start teaching using "whole language" approach.  Modern "whole language" is credited to Noam Chomsky and Ken Goodman.

Trouble is that "whole language" makes reading into a job approaching in complexity the acquisition of literacy using the ideographic system of Chinese and Japanese.

Popular opinion for some years has represented the "whole language" approach as a mistake.  Maybe it is, maybe it ain't.  But the question is: how do we tell when the government school system has made a mistake, and if it has made a mistake, how do we get it to change.

That's the problem with government.  It is very difficult -- almost impossible -- to get government to fix a mistake.

Let us call in Thomas Sowell, who attacks the "mistake" problem with great vigor in his Basic Economics.  If you go to Google Books and search for "mistakes" in the 4th Edition, you get  8 snippets on your browser.  Here is his main address to the question.
Humans are going to make mistakes in any kind of economic system.  The key question is:  What kinds of incentives and constraints will cause them to correct their own mistakes?
The answer he gives is that people correct their mistakes consistently and rapidly under the price system.  But in government, mistakes can take years, even decades to get recognized and corrected.

Why is that?  The simple answer is that the price system is a two-way communications system in which producers and consumers signal to each other constantly and unequivocably.  Mainly, they signal what they don't want.

If a producer prices a product and very few people turn up to buy it then he has a problem.  If a consumer wants a product and cannot find it at the price she wants to pay, then she has a problem.  In both cases, the producer and the consumer have made a mistake.  The producer must lower the price, or improve the quality or improve the advertising.  The consumer must either pony up more money or go without.

It's simple.  Either you respond to the signals the price system is sending you or you go broke.

Government is a two-way communications system too, but it is a system with a very narrow bandwidth.  Moreover, like an army, a government does not immediately respond and stop what it is doing when things seem to be going wrong. It bellows "once more into the breach" and decides that more money is needed to solve the problem.

The phonics vs. whole language controversy illustrates the issue.  It went on for decades while partisans argued, and ended up with a qualified victory for "synethic phonics."  Meanwhile generations of kids went through the schools system.  Should generations of kids be sacrificed to a mistake?

If schools were private then they would quickly respond to the demands of parents.  There could even be schools declaring their commitment to phonics in no uncertain terms or to whole language, and let the market decide.

The point is that, in a free market under the price system, producers and consumers are ceaselessly communicating to each other, and products and services are constantly getting adjusted and improved to meet the needs and the price preferences of the consumer.  Under government, not so much.

Of course, the whole point of government is to stop change.  We don't want to change the form of election to suit the partisan advantage of the current ruling class.  We don't want to change the Bill of Rights.

But what about Social Security?  The current system doesn't respond to changes in demographics, in the economy, and in life expectancy.  That is why it is going broke.

What about Medicare?  The president knows the problem, according to the senators who dined with the president last week.
"He said the problem with Medicare is people think that it’s their money,” when in fact "they pay in a buck and get three.”
If Medicare were a private system it would adjust to this and correct it within weeks.

The problem with our national politics right now is that the national myth about the welfare state is a lie.  But nobody dare admit it, because they know that the first person to tell the truth to the American people will get run out of town on a rail.

There has got to be a better way to own up to mistakes and fix them.

There is a better way.  It is called the price system.

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