Hayek: “A society that wishes to get a maximum economic return from a limited expenditure on education should concentrate on the higher education of a comparatively small elite, which today would mean increasing that part of the population getting the most advanced type of education rather than prolonging education for large numbers.
Following along my post last week, I’ve been able to visit Corey Robin’s new tumblr page - in some ways marking a new focus in his scholarship: Hayek and the Liberal philosophers like him and their relationship to the broader changes in our society. In short, the anti-democratic, anti-worker autocracy they must assume in order for their philosophies to be true. Or this is how I see them. It is an area I spent a great deal of time thinking about when I was writing my dissertation four years ago.
If you note, “four years ago” was also a key turning point in the national discussion around the economy. At the very least, it was a potential moment in which a well-developed truly radical platform with deep cultural roots could have taken hold here and forced a change of the dominant order. In other words, it was a moment when things could have shifted Left, had we a coherent narrative, a grassroots movement, and a connected public. Just for the sake of reference, you will know this has happened when someone like Doug Henwood or Greg Albo or Resnick or Wolff are shortlisted for a cabinet level economic advisory post. It did not happen with Obama, as much as the right would like to imagine it did. Hiring Lawrence Summers hardly represents a changing of the guard.
In any case, there was a great deal of anxiety from the serious libertarian right about the crisis and debt situation itself - and what political solutions would be engineered to fix them. I was reading Hayek and von Mises, trying to tie their views to the conservative Law and Economic movement. My ultimate goal was contextualizing the thought of Lawrence Lessig on copyright in relation to the legal tradition from which he hailed. While some of this had to do with his background, much of it has to do with his own interest in convincing the folks within that tradition that using the government for good is a socially important function.
He and his colleague Cass Sunstein (who, incidentally, was appointed by the president to an actual administrative, not advisor, position) make their arguments from within this tradition, taking as basically true conservative economic ideologies. So, in one article on the paradoxes of regulation, Sunstein takes as true a longtime contention of libertarian economists: that a high minimum wage ultimately creates a high level of unemployment or inflation. He cites a handful of studies or theoretical polemics as evidence this assertion is true.
The question is less whether the citations he provides us with as evidence are valid than that he feels that citation is enough to seal the deal. In effect, he is saying his primary and only valid audience begins from the baseline of a fundamentally (neo)liberal society. In any case, studying this connection and the range of contradictions in this moment of strife - to see the full portrait of the background from which the current POTUS sprouted - made writing the chapter on Hayek (and R.W. Coase, another demigod among Lessig and his cohort, including Yochai Benkler) a difficult task.
My primary source for peering into the contemporary debate was through a blog maintained by some of the cluster of more radical libertarian economists - now called Coordination Problem, it then went by the URL name The Austrian Economists. Here they railed about the bailout being generated in response to the crisis. They wanted to see the excess squeezed out of the economy (much as Thiel, in the linked earlier post, thought we should have. His post-hoc recommendation on that front can be found in this lament:
The last economic depression in the United States that did not result in massive government intervention was the collapse of 1920–21. It was sharp but short, and entailed the sort of Schumpeterian “creative destruction” that could lead to a real boom. The decade that followed — the roaring 1920s — was so strong that historians have forgotten the depression that started it. The 1920s were the last decade in American history during which one could be genuinely optimistic about politics. Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women — two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians — have rendered the notion of “capitalist democracy” into an oxymoron.
The best thing is to squeeze the slack out of society, to limit welfare receipts, and to reduce the use of the franchise by people who are “tough for rich white me…I mean libertarians.” This coincides with his belief, mentioned in the earlier post, that democracy is not an effective political system for a libertarian society. What he means here is that, as Chantel Mouffe outlines in her book, the Democratic Paradox, the kind of fundamentalist property protection he desires can only be achieved with some autocratic tendencies in the political system. In other words, you have to limit governance of society to the elites (somewhat like Lippman recommended in Public Opinion.)
And if the elites are the ones you need trained to make these decisions, then it makes sense that schooling need only educate those elites, as the Hayek quote above (poached from Robin’s blog).
This brings me to the real consequence of the most recent wave of neoliberal tendencies in relation to education: effectively, these elites have given up on mass education in the United States - yet they are not satisfied with simply ending it as we know it. They would like us to continue to believe in it, and pay for it out of pocket or via student deb, long after they have cratered it from within. After all, if there is money to be made from a mass delusion, Wall Street will find a way.
This also helps explain the major complaint of Occupy Wall Street - which is, unfortunately, almost completely absent as a cultural force going into this election. Namely, it wasn’t just student debt, but the lack of job prospects for educated college students now holding student debt. This is especially dire among the newest social sectors being served by higher ed - i.e. the more precarious socio-economic population, who most traditional colleges and universities have limited capacity to service well so are pushed into the for-profit sector.
Since their economic status coincidentally qualifies them for more loans they are actually able to pay the inflated for-profit tuition taking on an ever larger proportion of the federal and private student debt. This is more of a speculative bubble than an education system - and in so far as it is at all the latter, it is a system which explicitly trains people to be mid to low level service employees of one kind or another. It is a relative step up, but it is not a ticket to the middle class - much less the upper class.
I am ambivalent of how to place the blame on traditional institutions here. Many of them are committed to education as a form of social advancement. And clearly the issue is less about price (U. of Pheonix is almost as much as a four year private college) than it is about a certain perspective on recruiting, flexible capacity, and craven profiteering. If our society truly wanted to have an education system that served the entire population, the public money being funneled into for profits would be re-channeled into building out the public system.
Yet all indications are that the opposite will be on the offing, possibly undermining education as an institution for social advancement. Commentators like John Walsh might welcome this dissolution of what has become an illusion. But I am not so sure.